Once rarely heard beyond whispered conversations, and almost certainly never heard in the workplace, the topic of menopause is thankfully being talked about much more openly now in society and, importantly, in workplaces. But while this is undoubtedly a good thing, a very good thing, one question we could ask is: why now?
After all, menopause has always been around. It’s a phase in every woman’s life, whether she arrives at it naturally or through surgery.
Part of the answer lies in life expectancy. On average, a woman in the UK can expect to live until the age of 83 and reach menopause around age 51. In the early years of the 20th century, women had an average life expectancy of 49 and an average menopause age of 47. Quite a difference. So really, menopause is now very much a midlife transition, rather than the end-of-life experience it was years ago. We can expect to live around three decades beyond menopause.
For clarification, the term menopause refers to the day after a woman has had no periods for 12 months. The time leading up to this, when she usually begins to notice symptoms, is known as perimenopause, and the time beyond is post-menopause.
So, menopause is much more prevalent in our everyday conversations. But there is still work to be done. In some cases, and in organizations especially, it’s still regarded as sensitive or private. However, there are some extremely good reasons to make it a more commonplace discussion in the workplace.
Menopause symptoms at work
Data from a survey my colleagues and I conducted in 2018 in collaboration with TUC Education can help shed some light on the symptoms which most affect women at work. These statistics are from the 3914 women who responded who reported experiencing menopause at the time of the survey or who had gone through it while they were at work.
They refer to what we tend to call the top five, but there isn’t really anything ‘top’ about them:
- 29.5% said insomnia made their working lives problematic
- 31.9% identified anxiety and worry
- Just over 34% said focus and concentration
- Hot flushes were mentioned as difficult by 35.1%.
- Fatigue was the biggest issue, for over 40% of our respondents.
It can be a vicious circle, too. Symptoms can make work difficult, but certain types of working environment can make symptoms worse.
So, as we can see, symptoms don’t just switch off when a woman arrives at work. This is why it’s so important for menopause in the workplace support to be introduced as widely as possible.
Here, I’d like to outline four very strong cases for employers to consider:
The demographic case
Women aged between 50 and 64 have been increasing their participation in the UK labour market by leaps and bounds over the last few decades. This is highlighted by Office for National Statistics (ONS) data, which compare the second quarter of 1992 to that of 2021.
During these three decades, employment rates for women in this age band rose by 20.3 percentage points, a very significant increase. The comparative rise for men was 9.1 percentage points, less than half. This means that midlife women are now either staying in work for longer or coming back to work in greater numbers after having children. What it also means is that this group, much likelier than any other to be in some stage of menopause, is a very significant proportion of the workforce.
Some interesting recent research from Evandrou et al. looked at the two most recent sets – or waves – of longitudinal survey data from the National Child Development Study. Their analysis compares women aged 50 in wave 8 to the same women’s experiences in wave 9, at the age of 55. Well over half of women in wave 8 reported at least one severe menopause symptom that really affected their quality of life. These included hot flushes and night sweats, erratic periods, aches and pains, forgetfulness, insomnia, fatigue, anxiety, loss of focus and irritability – justust a handful of what are considered to be the 34 characteristic symptoms of menopause. Evandrou et al. found that women who have severe menopause symptoms are much more likely to reduce their working hours or leave work altogether than those who do not. This is something employers can easily help to avoid by introducing support and intervention.
The business case
Whether you’re a public, private or third sector organisation, you’re always going to be interested in the bottom line. And there is a strong economic case to be made for supporting menopausal staff in the workplace.
Let’s take a fairly common example, of a midlife woman who’s experiencing problematic symptoms. She can’t cope at work and isn’t receiving the right support, so she decides to leave her job, as I’ve outlined in the above demographic case. Statistics from Oxford Economics show that for someone who earns £25,000 a year, it will cost their employer over £30,500 to replace her. That’s not just in direct recruitment costs, but indirect costs of all that knowledge, wisdom and experience walking out of the door, and colleagues having to cover while a new recruit gets up to speed. And, when we also consider that actually the median salary in the UK is £29,000, those costs will jump even higher.
There are also some rather alarming statistics which tell us about the cost to the national and global economy. Research cited in a recent Forbes article tells us that women experiencing vasomotor symptoms – hot flushes and night sweats – who are not supported at work report nearly 60% more days when they lost productivity at work than their peers who did not have these symptoms. This costs the global economy more than $150bn every year. Similarly, and looking to the UK specifically, ONS stats from 2018 suggest that in one year 14 million working days are lost due to menopausal symptoms.
These are big numbers that employers really can’t afford to ignore. Consider the comparatively small cost of introducing some menopause support at work, and it becomes something of a no brainer.
The social responsibility case
For a responsible employer, supporting women through the menopause transition is simply the right thing to do. The 2019 Health and Her survey found that a staggering 370,000 women aged 50-64 reported they’d either left work or were seriously contemplating it due to menopausal symptoms. That’s 8.2% of this age band, and that figure is too high.
It’s well established that midlife women need to work to maintain financial security and stability, so it’s important they’re able to work for as long as they need to. But work gives us more than money. It’s also a very important source of good mental health, social support and self-esteem.
The legal case
Menopause is covered under the Equality Act 2010 under the protected characteristics of age, sex and disability. We have already seen three successful employment tribunals finding in favour of the claimant. These can be very costly for organisations, not just in monetary terms but also reputationally — while those with good menopause support can be a draw for talent, equally those seen as unsupportive can be unappealing.
Employers also have a duty of care to their employees under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, under which they are expected to ensure the health, safety and welfare of their workforce.
To sum up, the work I have been doing with my collaborators over the past six years suggests strongly that normalising menopause at work, making it a topic of everyday conversation and introducing interventions and support, pays enormous dividends.
It helps women feel more supported and satisfied at work, and they demonstrate much higher levels of commitment to employers if they feel they are being taken seriously as a group of workers with very specific needs around menopause. In this article I’ve used the terms woman, she and her. But not everyone who experiences menopause will identify as a cis woman – many who identify as trans or gender diverse may also experience menopausal symptoms.