Woman leading a boardroom of colleagues, teaching them about improving workplace menopause support.

Six in ten menopausal women said their symptoms had a negative impact on their work in a 2021 CIPD survey. [1] Menopause is often viewed as a taboo in workplaces meaning many women suffer in silence while simple workplace adjustments could be implemented to support those experiencing symptoms whilst at work. Jacqui McBurnie, Founder and Chair of the NHS Menopause Network, shares some of the recent findings from the All-Party Parliamentary Group for menopause and the changes that are needed in the workplace to ensure those experiencing menopause feel supported.

The discussion and recognition of menopause are now more prominent across society than in previous years. The impact of this (mostly) natural phase of life for over half of the population has gained traction; we can demonstrate the impact socially, morally, legally and financially. In an organisation such as the NHS, which reports almost 80% of its workforce as women, I am arguing that it is time to lift the lid and utilise these voices to embed formal, system-wide support. In this post I utilise the word woman, this term is not used exclusively regarding menopause – I recognise and respect the wider impact of menopause on those of any gender close to anyone struggling with symptoms and those born with ovaries experiencing menopause.

Fawcett Society Research

Recent data published by the Fawcett Society (drawn from the UK financial industry 2021), casts a light on the impact of symptoms, loss of experienced individuals and loss of women in leadership roles. This study critically drew out the impact on mental health; something less commonly recognised, compared with more commonly understood symptoms such as hot flushes. Difficulty sleeping, reported by 69%, can easily be seen to have an incremental impact on anxiety and worry (63%), problems with recall (58%) and concentration. Helpfully, World Menopause Day on the 18th of October also shed a light on the mental health aspects, using ‘cognition and mood’ as the theme.

Cognition and Mood – World Menopause Day

The view from this aspect is helpful for managers exploring what support to offer because it illustrates the exacerbating potential of some symptoms that will directly affect operational duties in the workplace. It’s easy, for example, for everyone to understand how awful we feel after a short period of lack of sleep. This offers a good access point for workplace discussion to promote understanding. The ability for focussed concentration, memory recall and being as energetic as we would normally be is impacted by the period we experience sleep issues. This is a helpful parallel we can offer for everyone to understand.

When we feed in classic symptoms of menopause such as low mood and anxiety to this example of lack of sleep, we begin to understand the struggle and why this is such as issue for the workplace. At the same time as that lack of sleep either due to insomnia or alongside night sweats, we now have the exacerbation of the other symptoms – a ‘snowball’ effect that starts with one thing and builds. This exacerbation effect could impact confidence as well as the ability to work effectively, prioritising competing demands, delegation, presenting articulately….and so it goes on.

Other studies such as the British Medical Association study in 2019, also recognised the loss of women in senior roles; loss of organisational memory, experienced mentorship and coaches and lack of diversity at senior levels. Lack of achievement of the gender pay gap is also of course an important issue.

The Women’s Health Strategy and All-Party Parliamentary Group

With the publication of the Women’s Health Strategy for England (2022) and the report from the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) in relation to menopause this week (12/10/2022) there are calls to action in the public domain. So, what is changing and how should we embed what is needed?

Critically, recent reports are informed by those who shared their lived experience. The Women’s Health Strategy for England received an unprecedented almost 100,000 responses and specifically recognised the need for a system that listens to women. The APPG also underlines the need to listen to the voices of those affected and asks the Minister for Health and Government to action on the 13 priorities identified.

Of course, these reports are not action plans; we await those plans and the changes. However, we can and must make changes in response to the reports pending those formal returns from central government. We can be proactive, we can utilise the themes already recognised as well as our own networks to build a responsive structure that meets the needs of our local population/staff and supports those individuals to maximise their wellbeing.

The Menopause Network

Many organisations are already addressing this gap, there are local menopause cafes, awareness sessions and signposting to inform those seeking support. Some organisations are considering a menopause policy and/or guidance and some working toward being recognised as ‘menopause friendly’ with a workplace pledge. This all contributes to greater knowledge, a cultural change to promote recognition which supports education and individual choice to inform wellbeing and manage symptoms where these are problematic. This all feels positive but what of the staff once awareness is raised?

Members of the Menopause Network report varied levels of confidence in managing menopause when they consult with their GP; often several appointments have taken place before this is addressed. Members also discuss varied levels of awareness and acceptance of menopausal symptoms in the workplace and access to specialist support ad hoc, sparse or not available. Alongside this, there are some organisations actively developing formal support covering management of periods of sickness, flexible working options including self-rostering, uniform adjustments and the ability to access specialist support (separately to Occupational Health). Whilst national strategies are working to address the wider aspects such as medical education, there remains a patchwork offer for many.

What changes need to be made?

This is the change we need to start with; women’s voices are growing louder, they are making formal contributions and using platforms to elevate lived experience and share the impact of current system limitations. This is evident from the responses to consultations mentioned earlier and an over 40% increase in reference to ‘menopause’ in tribunals since 2021 according to HR Magazine.

What is missing is system-wide consistency and leadership. The approach must represent the needs of those affected, must be based on the lived experience and respond to it. This implies a dynamic, system wide approach which builds upward, reflects on and challenges its priorities and is actively and consistently managed across the relevant aspects. Lived experience is the core enabler, it enhances action planning and the rich discussion needed to agree priorities. As we await national plans is your system prepared and ready to offer the support and recognition ahead?

[1] CIPD, Menopause Manifesto

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6 in 10 people experiencing the menopause say their symptoms had a negative impact on their work. Jacqui McBurnie, Founder and Chair of the NHS Menopause Network discusses changes that need to be made in the workplace to support employees going through the menopause.

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