Ben Broadbent, a deputy Governor of the Bank of England, certainly put his foot in it recently when he reached for the metaphor “menopausal” to describe the poor performance of the UK economy. However he could have done us all in favour by opening up discussions about the effects of the menopause on millions of women in the UK, as well revealing attitudes that can still be found in some quarters.
There are estimated to be around 3.5 million women in the workforce between the ages of 45 and 55. Yet despite such a significant number of women experiencing menopausal symptoms of varying degrees of severity, the menopause is rarely discussed openly at work and few employers have developed appropriate policies or guidance about it.
Why is this a problem?
We should not need reminding that the menopause can trigger some pretty severe symptoms, both physical and psychological. Physical symptoms include irregular or heavy periods, hot flushes and night sweats, sleep disturbances, headaches and weight gain. Psychological symptoms include depression and anxiety, irritability and mood swings, loss of confidence and difficulty in concentrating or memory problems.
If symptoms of this severity were associated with other medical conditions, it is likely that most employees would have the confidence to be open with their line manager. However evidences shows that with the menopause most women suffer in silence. That means that adjustments to make their working day easier to manage are not explored, and the culture of secrecy perpetuates itself. Worse still, women can be exposed needlessly to disciplinary action for poor performance and even dismissal.
What can be done?
A change in workplace culture is what is required. Women can contribute to the change in culture, but the lead has to come from senior management.
It may not always be necessary to develop a formal policy, but guidance certainly needs to be given to line managers and everyone else responsible for performance management. Easy steps that can be taken include:
- Exploring and explaining the adjustments that can be made to the working environment. Simple things like adequate ventilation and easy access to toilet facilities can make a significant difference. Adjustments to working arrangements as well as the physical environment should also be considered.
- Where occupational health support is provided, making sure that those responsible for delivering it are properly attuned to menopausal symptoms.
- Providing appropriate training to line managers to promote a culture of openness about the menopause as well as other workplace health issues. They also need to be reminded that employers’ obligations under the Equality Act will in many cases extend to women going through the menopause, particularly where their symptoms are at the severe end of the spectrum.
How could the Government help?
More could be done in making guidance and best practice more widely available. For example it is surprising that no guidance has been published by ACAS.
The only official Government publication that this writer has been able to track down is an evidence review published by the Government Equalities Office last year. There is clearly an absence of accessible guidance on best practice that we so badly need.
I have put together a short podcast with my colleague Anne Adamson in which we explore some of these issues in a little more detail.