Employers losing valuable talent through a lack of support for staff going through perimenopause and menopause

Menopause is inevitable for 51% of the UK population, yet most employers fail to provide support to their employees at that difficult time of their life, causing many people to choose not to progress in their careers or even leave the workplace altogether. There are huge economic losses to British business, caused by losing such skilled and experienced workers in high numbers.

In many cases employers’ failure to provide support for peri/menopausal symptoms forces knowledgeable and talented people out of work, with knock-on effects on the gender pay gap, the pension gap and the number of women holding senior leadership positions.

For most women (and often also for those people who may not be women but were assigned female at birth) there are many physical and non-physical symptoms of peri/menopause which commonly negatively affect them at work.

A recent study commissioned by Standard Chartered Bank and the Financial Services Skills Commission found that respondents reported:

  • Experiencing a ‘culture of silence’ around the issue, which causes a negative impact on workplace relationships.  Around half of menopausal workers reported that they were unable to discuss the menopause at work
  • Being frightened to reveal their status as perimenopausal or menopausal to their colleagues for fear of being perceived negatively, having their abilities doubted, or their male colleagues ‘reacting badly’
  • Feeling less listened-to by colleagues when offering an idea or opinion
  • Being less likely to apply for promotion, or even accept a promotion when offered, due to their symptoms making them question their own abilities
  • Feeling that leaving the workforce entirely at an earlier stage, rather than at retirement, was now likely

A recent Government study found that stigma, a lack of support, and discrimination, play key roles in forcing menopausal employees out of the workplace. In a survey of over 2000 women commissioned by the Parliamentary Committee, 67% reported ‘a loss of confidence’ because of menopausal symptoms and 70% reported ‘increased stress’. Despite this, only 12% of respondents sought any workplace adjustments, with 1 in 4 citing their worries about an employers’ reaction as their reason for not doing so.

The demographics of our working population are changing. There are 3.5 million women over the age of 50 in the workforce, and this number is set to rise. Almost 8 out of 10 menopausal women are currently in-work, 3 in 4 of those women will experience symptoms and 1 in 4 of them will have severe symptoms. Feeling supported within the workplace can be an incredibly positive factor for helping people make it through this process without leaving their jobs behind.

Symptoms which often affect employees at work

The menopause is a natural time of ageing and is the time in every woman’s life when her periods stop, and her ovaries lose their reproductive function. Usually, this occurs between the ages of 45 and 55. The NHS reports that in the UK the average age is 51.

Around one in 100 women experience the menopause before they reach 40. In a few exceptional cases women may become menopausal in their 30s, or even younger.

Perimenopause can occur for women from their mid-30s (or earlier) and is the period leading up to menopause. It is the beginning of a loss of oestrogen and progesterone. Women experience perimenopause for several years.

The most commonly reported physical symptom is tiredness, followed by night sweats, muscle and joint pain, hot flushes, bloating, headaches, period changes, urinary problems, palpitations and dizziness.

The most commonly reported non-physical symptom is insomnia, followed by anxiety, memory problems, difficulty concentrating, mood swings, irritability, loss of confidence and depression.

Once menstruation has ceased for 12 continuous months a person is deemed to have hit menopause. On average, most symptoms continue for around 4 more years from when a woman’s periods end, however, according to the NHS, around 1 in every 10 women experience them for up to 12 years.

A Government report published in July 2022 stated:

‘MPs call for new Menopause Ambassador to keep women in the workplace. Employers’ lack of support for menopausal symptoms is pushing ‘highly skilled and experienced’ women out of work, with knock-on effects on the gender pay gap, pension gap and the number of women in senior leadership positions. In a new report published today, the cross-party House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee calls on the Government to act, amending the Equality Act to introduce menopause as a protected characteristic, and to include a duty for employers to provide reasonable adjustments for menopausal employees. The MPs also urge the Government to remove dual prescription charges for oestrogen and progesterone as part of Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) nationwide, replacing it with a single charge for all women.

The average age of menopause is 51, with perimenopause often starting years earlier. With 4.5 million women aged 50-64 currently in employment, the report emphasises the scale of the problem facing ‘individuals, the economy and society’. Women experiencing at least one problematic menopausal symptom are 43% more likely to have left their jobs by the age of 55 than those experiencing no severe symptoms, while research by BUPA shows that 900,000 women experiencing the menopause have left work. Significant progress could be made to reduce the flow of women forced out of work.’

What should employers do to support staff through this?

Fundamental changes to company culture can be achieved by straightforward training and awareness raising for all staff, with the aim of creating an open and supportive ethos, with old-fashioned stigmas removed entirely.

A good first step is to create and implement a menopause policy, which can provide staff with advice and information on coping at work. That should then be backed-up by clear leadership support, training for managers and HR staff on how to support peri/menopausal employees, and coverage in any private health insurance and employee assistance programmes for peri/menopause-related symptoms.

Offering all employees, the option to attend an externally facilitated menopause workshop can be immensely useful for educational purposes. The menopause will only be experienced by women and other people who have a menstrual cycle, men should also be included in conversations and training. This will enable them to support others going through it.

Compassion and understanding can go a long way, and simple changes can be the difference between retaining crucial talent, or losing skilled and knowledgeable staff, leading to the expenses of re-recruiting and retraining. The cost of recruiting and training new employees far outweighs the costs of making simple adjustments to the working practices of peri/menopausal employees to help them stay in their jobs. Allowing employees struggling with the symptoms of peri/menopause some flexibility may be all that’s needed to help them feel supported. Those small changes could be:

  • Providing desk fans as a matter of course, so employees don’t have to ask for one
  • Assessing the office temperature – might there be a cooler area that employees could move to, maybe near a window they can open?
  • Providing a good range of sanitary products in the toilets
  • Providing loose fitting / layered uniforms where uniforms are worn
  • Allowing working from home where possible, particularly for those days when symptoms are difficult
  • Allowing staggered hours.; for many people, the first hours after waking can be particularly hard; coping with brain fog and night sweats. Just adjusting the start/end times of the working day can be immensely useful
  • Flexibility to take short breaks during the working day, particularly between meetings
  • Allowing job sharing and part-time working
  • Giving workers a fixed desk with storage for personal items
  • Ensuring that cold drinking water is always available for staff to access easily
  • Allowing menopausal women to attend medical appointments during the working day; this is often the only time when these appointments are available

The benefits of improving the way staff are treated

Helping people to feel supported in their workplace as they experience the rigours of perimenopause and then menopause is beneficial both to employees and employers.

The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 states that where reasonably practical, employers must ensure the health and safety, both physically and mentally, of their employees. This includes ensuring that workplace practices do not worsen the experience of a menopausal employee.

It’s important to note that the Equality Act 2010 tells us that although the menopause is not an illness or disability, the effects of the symptoms experienced can be disabling for women, which means that employers who fail to properly support women could be found to be discriminatory.

There have been several recent tribunal-claims against employers for failing to meet their duties, and employers now are under increasing pressure to ensure they are providing employees experiencing the menopause with adequate support.

An obvious major benefit to organisations of improving menopause support is that employers can retain the important skills and expertise that those employees bring to your workforce. It will also benefit the workforce overall know that their employer will support their employees through such tough times. This level of reputational improvement can encourage a culture of respect and responsibility across the board, increasing loyalty amongst employees.

Creating a positive, open, and non-judgmental environment between an employer and those people experiencing peri/menopause can work wonders to prevent valuable employees from losing confidence in their skills and abilities. It can also prevent them from feeling like they need to take time off work and hide the reasons for it. Crucially, this kind of employment support can prevent those employees from suffering increased mental health conditions such as stress, anxiety, and depression, and importantly, from leaving their job.