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How the menopause impacts the workforce

Article by Dr Mridula Pore

If you have middle-aged female employees, you can be certain that they are affected by the menopause. Menopause typically affects women between the ages of 45-55 and it’s a life stage that can creep up on them long before they’re aware of it. Symptoms of the perimenopause, the transitional period leading up to menopause – which include disrupted sleep, brain fog, anxiety and mood changes – are often dismissed by the women themselves as something else.

As a result, it’s common for women to be suffering long before they seek help – in a recent study by Forbes, one-fifth of women surveyed had experienced symptoms for a year or more before being assessed by a healthcare provider and 34% had never been formally assessed or diagnosed as menopausal. An incredible 73% were not getting treated for these symptoms.

It is perhaps unsurprising to learn that people experiencing menopause can struggle to get through their working day. At a time in life when ageism can often rear its ugly head, going through major hormonal changes can really impact on mental health, because symptoms like brain fog and poor concentration leave women feeling anxious about being seen as ‘past their sell-by date’ in terms of efficiency and mental sharpness. In addition, hormone fluctuations can also cause forgetfulness, which can be hugely distressing in a workplace setting.

Trying to perform at their best while going through this can be difficult for employees, especially as things they would normally do very confidently can become a challenge and anxious thoughts can become overwhelming. 63% of women going through the menopause say their symptoms have a negative impact on their work, and the necessary specialist knowledge and support from their usual GP is sadly not always guaranteed. It’s taken years of lobbying for the Government to pledge to lowering HRT prescription costs and provide better support for women going through menopause in England – but the day-to-day reality for people experiencing menopause is a feeling of isolation and an absence of personalised support.

Inevitably, the impact of the menopause on the performance of a workforce can be devastating. While three in four women will experience menopause symptoms, one in four will experience severe ones such as anxiety, brain fog, poor concentration, fatigue, hot flushes and irregular and heavy bleeding. According to research we recently carried out, 32% of employers said that absence and sickness are the workplace menopause issues which have most affected their organisation, 23% reported productivity was impacted and requests for flexible working increased by 25% due to staff struggling with the menopause.

And colleagues will of course be impacted too, often without knowing why their menopausal boss or co-worker is not quite on form. Menopause is an issue that employers can simply no longer ignore if they want to take the wellbeing of their staff seriously – as well as their productivity. Another recent study found that almost a quarter (23%) of women who had experienced serious menopause symptoms had left their job as a consequence. With around 900,000 women quitting their jobs because of the menopause, talent retention needs to be a priority.

Simple issues can become a big problem for people experiencing menopausal if they aren’t addressed. According to our study, 18% of companies surveyed reported that they’d received requests about the working environment and work attire.

A few changes to the work environment can make all the difference. Look at the possibility of flexible working and being able to work from home. Adjustments within the work environment, like sitting next to a window in an office or moving from an enclosed space at work to one that is open and airy, can really help. And if it’s a uniformed organisation, it’s important to think about whether the uniforms can be provided in natural fabrics, like the ones provided by the police force. Man-made fibres tend to make hot flushes and sweats far worse so it’s a good idea to issue extra ones so menopausal staff can change if need be.

Of course, the menopause doesn’t last forever, and the skills, concentration and confidence of affected staff usually return to normal once they are past this challenging but perfectly natural life stage. For staff to have to give up on the jobs they love is a tragedy – and for their employers, it has a direct impact on employee productivity and engagement, as well as retention of senior females. It makes a whole world of sense that every effort be made to support and retain their valued employees, rather than going through the effort, training and expense involved in replacing them.

Organisations that are serious about supporting mental health and wellbeing need to offer menopause support so that, while employees are going through this natural health journey, their distress is minimised. A subject that was once brushed under the carpet or even taboo is now being talked about more openly – so it’s important that companies join the conversation, know the facts and offer the support that’s needed.

    CEO of Peppy. Ex McKinsey, Novartis BU Head, PhD in chemical engineering, MIT

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