The menopause is a natural part of life – every woman who lives long enough will eventually experience it. This is one reason, but only one, that the menopause tends to get short shrift in the workplace, its inevitable arrival for over half the world’s population means that women are just expected to get on with it. Around 3.5 million women over the age of fifty are employed in the UK, many of them will be experiencing menopause, or peri-menopausal symptoms.
The menopause lasts for an average of four years, but some women experience it for a decade or more. The menopause can have dramatic implications for some working women, enlightened governments, unions and employers are starting to come to terms with this and exploring ways to support women working through this transitional life stage.
Which menopause symptoms affect women in the workplace?
A recent survey discovered that women consider tiredness, poor memory and lack of concentration to particularly affect them at work, along with depression, reduced confidence ,heavy painful periods and hot flushes.
How does the average workplace respond to menopause?
2011 research conducted by the University of Nottingham revealed that:
- More than half the women surveyed felt they needed more advice and support than they had received
- Women felt uncomfortable explaining their situation to managers, especially where managers were younger/male
- Less than half the women who needed to take time off to deal with their symptoms told their line manager the real reason
- Over half the women were unable to change their working practices or working hours, to help them manage their symptoms
- More than half the women who responded said they would like more information or advice from their employer on the menopause and how to cope with it.
That’s a lot of unhappy women, ill-informed managers and unsupportive workplaces! It has been estimated that 10% of women actually give up work because of the severity of their menopausal experience.
Rights in the workplace
Thankfully, more employers are now implementing menopause policies, but there is a long way to go and it is important to be aware of your workplace rights. Employers have a responsibility for the health and safety of all their employees, if you have worked for your employer continuously for 26 weeks you have the statutory right to ask for flexible working arrangements .
The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 requires employers to ensure the health, safety and welfare of all employees and this includes women experiencing menopausal symptoms. The act obliges employers to carry out risk assessments and these should include risks specific to menopausal women. Consideration should be given to individual needs making sure that the working environment does not worsen symptoms. Particular issues to take into account should include temperature, ventilation, toilet facilities and access to cold water.
There is also protection under The Equality Act 2010 employers could face claims for descrimation if they fail to properly support female employees experiencing menopause. Failure to make “reasonable” ” adjustments” to accommodate the menopause can lead to a claim for descrimination if working practices adversley affect women of a certain age.
Examples may include:
- Imposing a strict uniform policy that means women experiencing hot flushes have sweat patches/uniform areas that become transparent
- Refusing flexible working hours that could help a woman suffering from insomnia/night sweats to do her job effectively
- Failure to offer a working environment that can be adjusted eg opening windows or providing fans.
Now, most women aren’t going to want to take on that kind of fight, especially when they are already going through the kind of physical and mental symptoms that are making their working life unpleasant.
The solution, for many women, is to find a sympathetic manager, or talk to a union representative. Many unions have a clear menopausal policy, and specialist officers who can help explore possibilities in each workplace. Perhaps one of the best routes to resolving workplace menopausal issues is to find others like you and start a conversation – when we discuss menopause the same way we discuss pregnancy, for example, menopausal women, their colleagues, and their employers will all benefit.