What are the challenges women face in the workplace?
The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists’ 2019 report, ‘Better for Women: Improving the Health and Wellbeing of Girls and Women’, highlighted that in the UK, there are over 3.5 million female workers aged over 50. The average age to reach the menopause is 51, and around 1 in 100 women experience the menopause before 40 years of age. This is known as premature menopause or premature ovarian insufficiency. Many women will therefore experience it while at work. It is important to note that, while the menopause largely affects women in their 40s to 60s, it can also affect other groups including those who have ovaries, such as some transgender, non-binary or intersex people.
In recent years, studies have shown that the menopause can have a negative impact on working lives. For example, a survey conducted by ITV’s Tonight programme found that the menopause had made working life worse for half of the women interviewed, with one quarter agreeing that they had considered leaving their jobs altogether. The ‘Better for Women’ report also argued that the menopause is still viewed as a taboo subject. It highlighted a poll conducted by the BBC which found that 70% of respondents had not told their employer they were experiencing symptoms. A British Menopause Society (BMS) survey supported this, reporting that 47% of women who needed to take a day off due to menopausal symptoms indicated that they would not tell their employer the real reason for their absence.
Research by the Institute for Personnel and Development reported similar findings. It found that almost a million women have left their jobs because of menopausal symptoms. It also said that others are forced to take long-term absences to manage symptoms: on average, 32 weeks’ leave of their career due to the menopause.
In addition, in 2017, the Government published an evidence review focusing on how menopause transition impacts on women’s economic participation. It found evidence that the transition has both positive and negative effects, but that more evidence exists for the latter. For example, it reported that studies had found negative effects included lower productivity, reduced job satisfaction and problems with time management. It also found that although evidence about the effects of specific symptoms on women’s workplace performance and experience is not consistent, available evidence suggested that “significant numbers of working women experience problems at work as a result of individual symptoms”.
Focusing on coping strategies, the evidence review found that they range from concealing or managing symptoms, to disclosing difficulties and asking for support. A small amount of evidence showed that Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) alleviated symptoms affecting work, but hot or poorly ventilated environments, formal meetings and deadlines were found to make symptoms worse. In addition, it reported that the evidence consistently showed that women in transition felt those around them at work are unsympathetic or treat them badly because of “gendered ageism”. The review also considered the costs associated with the issue, reporting an estimated annual total of over £7 million in absence-related costs in the UK from those with severe symptoms.
What support should employers offer?
The British Menopause Society has published guidance for employers and organisations to consider when writing their own guidance on the menopause. Its recommendations included that it should:
- be tailored to meet the needs and the resources available;
- include information on the symptoms and experiences that women may have across different menopausal stages;
- contain information on difficulties at work, coping strategies and an acknowledgement that disclosing issues may not always be a comfortable experience; and
- aim information about the menopause at everyone, not just those going through it.
In response to a written question about what steps it is taking to encourage employers to support women experiencing menopause in the workplace, the Government has said that it is committed to supporting working women at all stages of their lives. It also said that it has worked with businesses and academics to highlight the role employers can play in supporting employees experiencing the menopause, including setting out practical actions they can take.
In response to further parliamentary questions on the issue, the Government has outlined its work to support menopausal women, including:
- creating a national women’s health strategy in England (the call for evidence asked women about the menopause);
- requiring secondary school pupils be taught about menstrual health and the menopause as part of relationships, sex and health education; and
- updating National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidelines to include clear criteria for the diagnosis, investigation and treatment of early menopause.
In February 2021, the Government also said that it is committed to developing a sexual and reproductive health strategy, which it plans to publish in 2021. This follows a recommendation made by the House of Commons Health and Social Care Committee’s 2019 report, ‘Sexual Health’.
- International Menopause Society, ‘World Menopause Day’, accessed 1 November 2021
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