Empathetic leadership is key to understanding menopause in the workplace
Employers, business leaders and managers must be proactive in understanding the realities of the menopause and providing appropriate support, writes Kelly Thomson
If your colleague confided that they were feeling anxious, depressed, dizzy, their joints were hurting, mouth burning, heart beating irregularly and hair falling out, how would you react? Would you suggest they should see a doctor? Would you expect them to continue working? Would you expect them to continue delivering that work at 100% or even 110%?
And would it surprise you to know that these are all common symptoms of a condition that more than half of the population will experience? That may not be you, but it is definitely a close colleague, friend or family member. So, it's everyone's business.
For many of us, the word ‘menopause’ conjures up images of hot flushes. That's not surprising given these can be a relatively visible symptom and are experienced by two thirds of people going through menopause. But for the many women – plus those trans, non-binary and intersex people who experience menopause – it is a condition which affects the whole body and comes with a smorgasbord of as many as 34 common, if less well-known, symptoms.
Along with the ones mentioned above, the menu offers treats like panic disorder, difficulty concentrating, migraines, fatigue and feelings of electric shocks. Of course, not everyone will experience all possible symptoms, symptom severity will vary hugely and every menopausal journey is different.
Impact on work
But, according to Menopause Support, 77% of women find at least one menopausal symptom ‘very difficult’ and 44% experience three or more severe symptoms. It's perhaps little wonder then that in a survey of 3,800 women by Newson Health Research and Education, 99% reported that peri/menopause had a negative impact on their work. Worryingly, 59% had taken time off work because of their symptoms and for 18% this had meant more than eight weeks out.
For employers, as well as these performance tax and sickness absence risks, it's important to understand that menopause symptoms will lead many to hold off going for promotion, to take a step back at work or reduce hours or even to leave the workforce altogether, often at a critical point in their career trajectory, contributing to the global gender pay gap which the World Economic Forum estimates will take 132 years to close.
If this is surprising to you, rest-assured you're not alone. Historically, the menopause has been under researched, often misunderstood and almost never discussed at work. This shroud of workplace taboo has persisted even though a significant proportion of most workforces will go through the menopause, are going through it or have already gone through it. When you think about that, it's perhaps not that surprising that so many people leave their jobs because of barriers which can feel impossible to navigate with menopause symptoms.
Happily, the silence and stigma around discussing menopause is changing, public awareness levels are rising and many employers are already committed to making a positive difference.
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We recently saw NHS England publish new national menopause guidance for the organisations in their family – but potentially helpful for all sectors – which includes tips for line managers, including to:
- Normalise asking for help;
- Increase your own and your team's knowledge and awareness about the menopause; and
- Consider flexible working as one measure to help colleagues manage symptoms.
Conversely, for employers that ignore this topic there are various legal risks, including the potential to breach the Equality Act 2010.
Research by the Menopause Experts Group found a near doubling between 2020 and 2021 of employment tribunal cases where menopause was cited and we expect this upward trend to continue. This is quite apart from the broader risks of the avoidable, but seemingly inevitable, loss of talent in a particularly challenging recruitment market and the reputational risks of getting this wrong.
As employers, if we want our people to bring their whole – and best – selves to work, we have to create workplace cultures which truly value people as individuals and for the differences they bring to the table. This is what we mean when we talk about inclusion. And this is how we reap the multiple potential rewards of a diverse talent pool including amplified innovation, reduced group think and increased profitability.
The first step to inclusion is to understand the specific challenges created at work for different groups and individuals and to appreciate how these challenges are compounded for people who belong to multiple marginalised groups, such as black women or disabled older people.
When it comes to getting it right on menopause, employers, business leaders and managers need to be proactive in understanding the realities of the menopause and providing appropriate support.
Just as there is no cookie cutter experience of menopause, there is no one size fits all for what that support should look like. Ultimately, empathetic, flexible leadership is key.
Kelly Thomson is a partner in the employment, equality and engagement team at RPC and co-host of the weekly equality podcast The Fix: Making Workplaces Work for Everyone.