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Menopausal workers are quitting as it remains an unspoken taboo

Kat Derbyshire, Director - Black Kat HR Ltd

Some women sail through menopause with nothing more than night sweats. For others, menopause is no easy feat.

From hot flushes to cognitive complaints and irritability, menopause can be severely debilitating for many women. Symptoms can impact daily life, and unfortunately have serious repercussions in the workplace.

So why is it that the subject of menopause in the workplace, to this day, remains taboo?

According to the Office of National Statistics, in 2020, menopausal women represented the fastest-growing workforce demographic in the UK. Yet in the workplace menopause remains stigmatised. On top of this, a UK charity recently found up to 1 in 4 women actually consider leaving their jobs because of the menopause.

Dr. Martin Kinsella, leading hormone doctor and Founder of BioID Health worries that these statistics paint a worrying picture.

He says: “To me, this indicates that the potential for senior women taking up leadership roles may be shrinking because of poor, and inadequate support in place for menopausal employees.

“Each person will naturally experience menopause differently, and symptoms can widely range from mild to severe. The most common side effects include insomnia, hot flashes, irritability, memory loss, depression, and anxiety – all of which may interfere with a person’s ability to work.

“Employees may begin to feel less competent in their careers, and whilst menopause plays a huge part in feelings of anxiety and depression, the feeling of underperforming in the workplace will undoubtedly heighten those feelings.”

In January of this year, Lisa Taggart a Regional Manager from Manchester was really struggling with menopausal symptoms and explains that every day became a real challenge.

She says: “At first, I started to feel very lethargic, then in January it got so bad that I just didn’t want to be here anymore. I used to love going to work, socialising, and meeting new people, but every day became a real challenge. I felt depressed, anxious, and irritable – I just didn’t want to be here anymore.”

Unfortunately, there have been documented cases of women who have had their employment terminated for poor performance, despite having medical notes outlining menopause as a certified reason. Of course, those who feel wronged, or discriminated against could proceed to an employment tribunal, but for the company in question, these can be costly to defend and cause reputational damage.

Kat Derbyshire, Director of Barnsley based HR Consultancy, Black Kat HR Ltd adds: “Naturally, menopause symptoms may pose significant challenges for women, and it is important that employers understand these challenges, and recognise how it can impact one’s ability to carry out, or even attend work.

“As part of their duty of care, employers have a responsibility to support their staff through any ailments that impact abilities, including mental health and physical conditions. I think more open conversations need to be had, so employers can implement the right level of help and support for employees.”

Whilst every workplace comes with its own stress factor, some industries may be more difficult than others for women to talk about their struggles.

Dr. Kinsella explains: “Whilst this is not an equality issue, some women do work in more male-dominant industries, making it harder to garner these open, and honest conversations. While males may suffer from Andropause (better known as male menopause), it is very rarely discussed, so a lot of men have little to no understanding of the full spectrum of symptoms and therefore may find it hard to sympathise.

“When you think of menopause, a lot of people just think of hot flashes. Whilst this is a very common and unpleasant side effect, there are so many more symptoms that people just don’t realise, like irritability, anxiety, and brain fog which can be severely rehabilitating.”

During menopause, the production of both estrogen and progesterone slows down. Both hormones play a vital role within the body and control your reproductive system. It is the depletion of these hormones that causes both the physical and emotional symptoms of menopause.

In the workplace, unfortunately, these symptoms can be disruptive, but it shouldn’t be that way. Menopause is natural, and I believe women should feel empowered throughout it, and supported in the workplace.”

Recently, cereal manufacturer Kellogg’s announced that they would be introducing ‘menopause leave’ to help safeguard staff, encourage open conversations, and create a culture in which people feel psychologically safe.

Kat says: “What Kellogg’s have done is a step in the right direction and could be extremely beneficial for the employees who need it. There are so many things’ businesses can and should do to take great strides towards handling menopause effectively in the workplace.”

So, should other businesses be following in Kellogg’s footsteps and introducing measures to support staff through challenging times, and if so, what can be done?

Kat comments: “The first step I believe needs to be around education. Many employers would say they do not currently have adequate knowledge around menopause and the challenges it presents, so I believe raising awareness on the subject is key. There should be specific training in place for both employees and line managers around menopause to ensure those going through it are being treated fairly, with dignity, and respect. Simple and often zero cost adjustments could make all the difference for an employee.

“By putting a menopause policy in place, shows commitment from the business to support employees, signposts towards support available, and provides a framework for managers to apply consistently.

In addition to looking at adjustments that can be made at work, employers will also need to consider how periods of absence due to negative effects of menopause will be handled in absence management procedures so as not to treat those employees unfairly.

“Menopause isn’t specifically a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010 however businesses need to be equipped to handle this in the right way. If an employee is treated less favourably because of their menopause symptoms it may lead to claims of discrimination on the grounds of age, disability, or sex further highlighting the need to handle these situations sensitively.

“When putting processes and procedures in place around menopause, businesses must acknowledge that it may not be easy or comfortable for employees to come forward and talk about challenges. Therefore, there should be a focus on creating a culture where employees feel they have somebody to talk to in confidence, such as a HR or an external support service paid for by the company, so employees have access to support without any potential, negative repercussions.”

Dr. Kinsella adds: “For women to feel confident to speak openly about menopause-related issues, businesses need to create a more open culture that encourages honest discussions.

“I also believe that there needs to be more education around the treatment options available, to help women manage their symptoms. Studies have shown that 3 in 4 women who seek help for symptoms, do not receive it.”

Dr. Kinsella explains that previous treatments of menopause have been ineffective, and even made the symptoms of menopause worse.

He comments: “For years, HRT has been hailed as the best treatment plan, but it has also been linked to some health complications including cancer, blood clots, stroke, and an increased risk of depression. The other problem is that they are not tailored around the individual’s specific needs. Every patient is different and therefore will have different hormone levels and deficiencies, and this is what I explain to my patients seeking treatment.

“It is the hormonal imbalance that causes the unpleasant symptoms of menopause, so I recommend a tailored treatment path like Bioidentical Hormone Therapy (BHRT) that identifies your individual deficiencies and restores those exact hormones and nutrients. Through a simple blood test, we can analyse a patient’s individual hormone levels, and prescribe a bespoke treatment path based on the individual deficiency.

Including perimenopause, symptoms may last for up to 12 years, though the severity will vary. They can impact daily life, and I think more people need to understand that, particularly in the workplace.

“Menopause is a healthy and completely normal chapter in life, but it can be challenging. I believe women should always have an open forum to discuss their individual situations and have a dedicated support system to help them, should they want it.”

Kat concludes: “The menopause is reported to have a negative impact on around a quarter of those going through it and this is an issue which needs to be understood and supported by employers. If as a business you don’t currently have anything in place, I would recommend seeking specialist HR input to implement the appropriate training, policies, and procedures to enable you to best support your employees and minimise the potential of discrimination claims for your business.

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