Has workplace menopause support improved in recent years?

Need to know:

  • The menopause is one of very few issues in the workplace that people still feel awkward talking about.
  • In the past five years, there has been a significant improvement in the support that’s available to women. Employers increasingly understand the many reasons why it’s so critical to help women through the menopause.
  • While the conversation is opening up, there’s still more work to do to make sure that women are supported on a practical level.

In the modern workplace, very few issues remain taboo. But one important experience still isn’t talked about enough. Going through the menopause can turn a woman’s life upside down and affect the people around her significantly, too.

Kathy Abernethy, a specialist menopause nurse who is also director of menopause services at Peppy, says: “People are beginning to realise it is not just a woman’s issue. Not everyone who is going through menopause will look like a woman. It is an issue that affects everybody, and we are just starting to realise that.”

It is vital that employers support women through this time. Women’s experiences of the menopause vary so much, from the length of time it lasts to the severity of symptoms women experience: while women get no symptoms at all, others are profoundly impacted.

“People sometimes underestimate the impact and how markedly they can be affected,” says Abernethy. “It’s not just hot flushes. It’s things like short-term memory loss, word fog, lack of concentration, extreme tiredness, sometimes bladder symptoms – the list goes on.”

Workplace support

Menopause support isn’t just a nice to have. “Menopausal women are the fastest growing demographic in the workforce,” says Deborah Garlick, founder of Henpicked: Menopause in the Workplace, a firm which offers training on menopause in the workplace.

Garlick adds: “There is a strong business case for offering menopause support. Employers have retention strategies, strategies to reduce absence and sickness and increase employee wellbeing. This is an area which ticks all those boxes.”

Plus, no employer wants to fall foul of employment law. “Ignoring the issue and the difficulties many women face could amount to a breach of health and safety legislation or result in sex, age or disability discrimination claims under the Equality Act,” says Cheryl Brennan, executive director, health and benefits at Howden Employee Benefits and Wellbeing.

There’s a strong business case for supporting menopausal women. If they don’t feel they can ask for support, or a request for help is unaddressed, productivity will suffer. In the worst-case scenario, companies could face a talent drain of experienced employees.

The good news is that things are starting to improve. “I have been working in menopause for a long time and I can see how we have improved getting the conversation going, but we are a long way off in terms of offering women actual, tangible support, such as through Peppy and other places,” says Abernethy. “At the end of the day [we] can talk about it as much as [we] like, but if [we] can’t improve that woman’s life, nothing changes for her. It starts with the conversation and we are getting there with that.”

Practical steps

Employers often have lots of support available which could help menopausal women but haven’t badged it as such. Benefits like employee assistance programmes (EAPs), virtual GPs or private healthcare and yoga and meditation classes could all be useful. Employers need to make sure these are clearly signposted.

They should also encourage open discussions. When leaders are candid about their own experience of menopause, it can open the floodgates, says Garlick. “I was at a session on this when the chief executive of one of the NHS Trusts said, ‘Today as I speak to you, I have brain fog, I feel really fat, and I am suffering from hot flushes.’ When a leader can be that open, it helps people to understand it is not just them. So many women feel alone and don’t realise that the person sitting next to them is experiencing the same thing.”

Another thing that works well is holding internal events. “[Emloyers] could use [their] own speakers or invite experts to come in and speak. This can be done as webinars and gives employees a chance to ask questions and open up a conversation about how they’re feeling. We’ve found this is something that’s really worked at Bupa,” says Wendy Rose, head of strategic relationships at Bupa Health Clinics.

“For those who haven’t put the support in place yet I would encourage [them] to start the conversation about menopause. Make it less of a taboo subject by talking about it, raising awareness and educating people around it and the impacts that some experience for it and if possible, share some lived experiences,” suggests Claira Singh, diversity and inclusion manager at Wickes.

Line manager training

Line managers are often the first port of call when women need adjustments to be made. Their reaction is crucial. There are plenty of specialists in this area who will provide training.

Sometimes, people don’t want to open up to male managers, or managers who are younger than them, regardless of how well-equipped they are to have a conversation. Some organisations are training menopause champions as an alternative way for people to access support, as Santander UK did.

When upskilling an organisation, it’s a great idea to include people from the occupational health team in training sessions. Garlick says: “Occupational health professionals who have been through training have said it has been a real lightbulb moment for them. Now, they always have menopause in the back of their mind whereas before they might not have thought of it.”

Think of the practicalities

“There are lots of practical ways of improving working conditions for menopausal employees, many of which would be relatively easy to implement,” says Brennan. “Possible adjustments include providing fans, being flexible about toilet breaks, making sure that uniform design and materials don’t exacerbate symptoms, and allowing flexible working hours to help combat sleeping difficulties.”

Rose adds: “While the menopause may have been easier for some women to manage while working from home, night sweats is a key symptom which can lead to lack of sleep and fatigue. Make sure you’re flexible to your team’s needs, allowing them to change meetings and work hours that suit them.”

Consider specialised support

Some health insurers now offer menopause support to women. For example, Vitality includes access to Peppy, an app-based digital health platform which includes menopause support, as part of its standard private medical insurance plans.

Singh says: “We know how important it is to offer support, particularly mental health support to colleagues, and with a service like[Peppy], [we] know our colleagues have an extra layer of help that they might not receive elsewhere.”

Bupa recently launched the Menopause Plan, which gives women access to menopause-trained GPs. Employers can buy the plan for their employees, and the plan also comes with a toolbox to help employers to promote the service internally. Women can also buy it directly.

It is great to see new products and support becoming available for this hitherto all too infrequently discussed issue. “There has been a seismic shift over the past five years,” says Garlick. Her training company ran 50 workplace sessions in March 2021, and the sessions are always fully booked, she says.

With employers far more aware of the issue, thankfully, the subject is becoming far less taboo, eroding the shame that women once felt about asking for help.