Pause for thought: Is menopause the UK’s hidden talent drain?

For the majority of our 2to3days community, menopause is either something that’s just about coming into focus, or you are fully in the throws of it. Everyone has a different experience of this transition - and everyone will go through it at some point.

The irritant is that it comes at a time when most of us are enjoying a career peak.

Why is menopause a taboo topic - or worse, something to be made fun of?

Women are suddenly walloped with hormones that create physical symptoms that can include fiery hot flushes, headaches, insomnia and brain fog. They're sideswiped by unexpected anxiety, lack of confidence, mood swings and poor concentration. In private, they're struggling with the impact of weight gain.

So it’s not really a surprise that people try to hide this at work - after all, we’ve worked hard to get to where we’ve got and we don’t want something as inconvenient and personal as the menopause to destablise that progress.

The Faculty of Occupational Medicine says that half of women don’t seek medical advice, let alone talk to their line managers about their symptoms. But we do know that women who do look for help can find ways to manage work and life better during menopause.

What’s the evidence to show that menopause truly has an effect on work?

The Government report, Menopause transition: effects on women’s economic participation, took evidence from 104 publications and found that the negative effects of the menopause on mid-life women’s quality of working life and performance at work include: reduced engagement with work, reduced job satisfaction, reduced commitment to the organisation, higher sickness absence and an increased desire to leave work altogether. 

The study also showed that the menopause can negatively affect women’s time management, emotional resilience and ability to complete tasks effectively.

So we understand why women might not want to share this with their line managers! However, for organisations to retain their top talent (and remember, the menopause does not last forever), they are going to have to be proactive.

What is the state of play for menopausal women in work in 2020?

With 71.9% of women in work according to November 2020 data from the ONS, and a persistent increase in the employment rates of women aged between 50 and 64 to 64.2% (during the past 30 years the employment rate of women aged 50-64 rose by 22.3 percentage points) the issue has to be taken seriously.

A survey published by WiHTL (Women in Hospitality, Travel & Leisure) in October found that 69% of participants said their organisation was not menopause-savvy; 59% worked in a culture that was not supportive of menopause and 52% were unable to speak openly about their symptoms.

This is a worrying read-out considering that all women will experience the menopause, many at the peak of their working lives and 25% of these will suffer severe or life-changing symptoms.

Why should employers support women with perimenopausal and menopausal symptoms?

The UK Government study on menopause revealed that menopausal women are the fastest growing economic demographic in this country. They must not be sidelined.

Acas (the independent body that works with millions of employers and employees every year to improve workplace relationships) has clear guidance: “It is very much in the interests of an organisation to support workers with perimenopausal and menopausal symptoms in the workplace. As well as being an important health and wellbeing matter, managing menopause in the workplace sensitively and effectively will help an employer retain and recruit skills and experience.”

One in six women in the workplace is over 50. When the average age of reaching menopause is 51 (with symptoms appearing on average four years before that) it’s not an issue to be brushed under the carpet.

What’s the financial impact of menopause on women?

Tea Colaianni, Founder and Chair of WiHTL, collaborated with Lauren Chiren, founder of Women of a Certain Stage, who specialises in Executive Health Coaching and Menopause at Work Training, to carry out research and produce a 2020 white paper with the aim of increasing awareness and helping bring about meaningful change.

Tea said:

“Misinterpretation of symptoms can lead to a loss of female talent. Menopause can affect many things including mood, sleep, concentration and confidence. When these symptoms are misunderstood, they can be perceived as performance and attendance issues, leading to negative consequences such as women avoiding or being overlooked for promotion, being put on performance plans and even leaving their jobs.

“The financial impact of menopausal symptoms is hard to estimate due to the taboo surrounding the condition and women not wanting to share the true reason for their absence, however current estimations suggests 14 million working days are lost annually due to menopause symptoms.”

So how can we manage menopause in the workplace?

Practical solutions and open discussions are key. While 71.2% of women in the WiHTL study felt that their symptoms may impact or have impacted their performance level, a lack of support is leading to women to hide their experiences and needs whilst they transition.

The menopause must be embedded in the wider health and wellbeing agenda - and if employers were to monitor the projected age of their workforce, the case for this would become ever more apparent.

C-Suite buy-in to organisational culture change that supports compulsory equality and diversity training, menopause-tailored absence policies and flexible work patterns, is essential. Using the potential legal impact of not taking action here will drive that message home.

Line managers and employees should be trained and empowered to discuss menopause at work. However, It should be viewed no differently to running a maternity leave or bereavement meeting - the line manager does not need to know the personal medical symptoms of menopause to be able to support their valued staff through this challenging time.

Practical steps include offering flexible work schedules to help cope with lack of sleep, desk fans and cold water, access to a quiet room to cope with hot flushes and a flexible approach to uniform.

By creating an inclusive culture, employers will benefit from increased performance and attendance, improved gender parity, and rise in engagement and retention of female talent. 

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Why do companies need to get a grip when it comes to menopause?

It’s well documented that our population is ageing, our retirement age is increasing, and we’re all in work for longer. With fewer new entrants joining the workforce, we need to look after our older workers. But it isn’t just the right thing to do, it makes good financial sense too.

The cost of defending an employment tribunal is a whopping £8,500 - excluding the cost of any awards or the claimant’s legal fees if won. The reputational risks alone are not worth it.

Oxford Economics puts a figure of £25,000 on replacing a person who earns £30,000 a year - that includes direct recruitment costs and bringing that new person up to speed. Of course, recruiting through 2to3 days cuts the wheat from the chaff and reduces this cost significantly. 

The highest rates of sickness absence rate according to the Office for National Statistics are in older women and those working in large organisations. 

What do people wish they had known about menopause?

The WiHTL study gives voice to those affected by menopause. Here’s what they had to share:-

“I thought the menopause would consist of hot flushes and mood swings. I did not expect to struggle with confidence (I had always been a confident person), lots of self-doubt and feeling as though I was no longer adding any value.”

“The lack of confidence in my abilities, especially at work (was a shock). I was unable to concentrate and retain information, which impacted my confidence and felt I would not be able to continue in my role. Other colleagues were a few years away from the menopause, so I was unable to speak to anyone.”

So what’s good about menopause at work?

Co-author of The Government Report on Menopause, Dr Andrea Davies said: ‘Menopause and work – it’s a two-way street. Work is good for menopausal women. It contributes far more than just a salary, it can provide fulfilment, self-esteem, identity and social needs too.”

Professor Amanda Griffiths, from the University of Nottingham’s School of Medicine, who contributed to the FOM’s menopause guidance is also positive. She said:

“It is good to see that menopause is increasingly being widely recognised as a potential problem and is no longer ‘taboo’. Serious problems only affect a minority of menopausal women, and even then only temporarily. But for those affected it can be very unpleasant. More awareness and some simple changes, many that women themselves have recommended, could make their working lives during this time much easier.”

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