Research shows almost half of women going through the menopause have difficulties coping with work*. But employers can do more to help
Lack of sleep, having up to 30 hot flushes a day, experiencing brain fog and impaired memory are just a few of the debilitating symptoms experienced by some women as they go through the menopause. “It can have a huge impact,” says Debby Holloway, menopause expert and member of the RCN Women’s Health Forum. “You can find yourself thinking you’re not working very well, even facing performance issues at work.”
Accurate information is vital and a key role for the RCN, says Debby, who has helped update our guidance for representatives on how to support members going through the menopause at work. “We’re a member-led organisation and nursing is a predominantly female profession,” she says. “Whenever our forum has done presentations about the menopause at RCN events, we get so many questions from nurses about their own circumstances. It shows there’s a real need for good quality information and resources.”
While employers are paying more attention to the effects of the menopause, its impact needs to be continually highlighted, she says. “If someone’s performance suddenly deteriorates and they’re more forgetful or perhaps not as productive as they used to be, managers need to ask if it could be the menopause, rather than immediately thinking it’s a disciplinary issue,” says Debby.
Managers need to recognise it's a normal thing. Everyone experiences it differently
Countering misconceptions about the menopause is high on the agenda for Penny Mannings, who is the RCN national lead steward for NHS Blood and Transplant and who has been working with other union colleagues to radically change attitudes in the organisation. “The initial challenge was ignorance,” she says. “I’ve had someone say, ‘some women have the menopause but most don’t’, which obviously makes no sense at all.”
As many staff in her organisation are older women, she believes it’s vital that the issue is addressed by employers, who can do a great deal to help their staff. “Managers need to recognise it’s a normal thing,” says Penny. “Everyone experiences it differently too. Just because someone isn’t having hot flushes, it doesn’t mean they’re not suffering in other ways.”
Working with colleagues, she has been instrumental in drafting a standalone workplace menopause policy, which she hopes will be formally launched later this year. “It’s at the early stages,” says Penny, who is also an RCN safety rep and learning rep. “We don’t want it to be too weighty or complex. Much of it is signposting people to useful resources.”
In practical terms, achievements include new alternative uniforms which aren’t as thick. Shifting the culture has also been fundamental to change, Penny believes.
“We’ve been able to make menopause a word people aren’t afraid to use,” she says. “It was a real challenge initially for some managers, but it’s amazing how the culture has moved. Clinically it’s something that will happen to every woman and it isn’t something to feel ashamed about.”
- The average age for menopause is 51 in the UK, with an age range of 39-59 years.
- Around one to 10% of women experience an early menopause or premature ovarian insufficiency (POI), with the same symptoms as the menopause.
- People who are non-binary, transgender and intersex may also experience menopausal symptoms.
- *A University of Nottingham study in 2010 found that almost half of women surveyed found it somewhat or fairly difficult to cope with work.
- Symptoms include hot flushes, night sweats, difficulty sleeping, a reduced libido, vaginal dryness, headaches, mood changes, palpitations, joint stiffness and problems with memory and concentration.
- According to the NHS website, symptoms can last for around four years after a woman’s last period.
How can employers help?
Employers can take a variety of actions to help their staff. Practical steps include:
- avoiding nylon or close-fitting uniforms to help counter daytime sweats and hot flushes, providing staff with alternative options
- supplying fans at workstations, adjusting air conditioning and improving ventilation where possible
- allowing for flexible working, including temporarily adjusting shift patterns to help women struggling with disturbed sleep
- ensuring easy access to cold drinking water
- allowing for more frequent toilet breaks
- encouraging employees to discuss their concerns with managers or occupational health
- providing access to counselling and psychological support
- enabling networking with colleagues facing similar issues
- providing sickness absence policies that account for and don’t penalise menopause-related absence
- ensuring that attitudes are empathetic and understanding, rather than insensitive or jokey.