Women, work and the menopause

It affects half the population at some point in their working lives and yet the menopause remains a taboo subject. Mentor senior employment law and HR consultant Michelle Dixon speaks up.

I sat down to write a stimulating and enlightening piece for International Women's Day when my mind went blank. Completely blank. I couldn't think of a thing.

As I sat staring into space trying to recall what I was going to write about - was it women in business, mental health, well-being, staff absence or recruitment? - someone turned on all the radiators in the office, stuffed hot water bottles down my top, then wrapped me up in an enormous duvet. 

Chemotherapy to treat breast cancer in 2016 brought on a chemical menopause. I had gone from a fun-loving 48-year-old who would happily work all day, meet friends for dinner, dance on the table, and still manage to prepare for a breakfast presentation to a worn-out, shattered and confused version of my former self.  

I was desperately tired, but couldn't actually sleep. I would lie awake in bed for hours feeling hot, so very, very hot. Going through the menopause made me feel invisible, dated, past my best, but more than anything else I felt sad.

So I researched the menopause - one of the last taboos in the workplace, in life - and I got help. I realised I was surrounded by amazing pre-, peri- and post-menopausal women who were still pursuing their dreams and ambitions. The menopause doesn't stop you from being a brilliant businesswoman.

'Menopausers' need to feel valued. They may momentarily forget a name, but they are the backbone of a company. They are also your mums, sisters, aunts, partners - they are not invisible. Loyal, highly experienced, unflappable, compassionate, patient, they are valuable assets to your business.

There are 3.8 billion women in the world, and 3.5 million between the ages of 50 and 65 who are employed in the UK. One in four of these will experience severe menopausal symptoms - so this is a massive issue. There are 34 recognised common side-effects of the menopause, including depression, insomnia, mood swings, fatigue, anxiety, headaches and memory loss. Depression on its own is serious enough - so imagine linking that with potentially another 33 side-effects.

The workplace is increasingly taking on board serious issues such as depression, mental health and well-being, and sexual harassment, in efforts to create a more diverse workforce. Now it needs to take on board the final taboo - the menopause - and help those who are perhaps silently struggling. 

King's College London and the University of Nottingham have been exploring how managers and employers could help support women going through the menopause - from women's perspectives. While some women can sail through the menopause with barely a symptom, it can have a huge impact on others at work and at home. One of the main findings of the study was that women want increased awareness - for employers to understand menopausal symptoms and how they can affect women at work.

The menopause can happen very early, in your 30s, or very late, in your 60s; it can be over in a flash, or it can never really leave. So if an employee mentions that they're going through the menopause, don't ignore it; ask if there is anything you or your company can do to support them. Employers need to help women be the best they can be in their work and careers, to show what a valuable asset they are to any business. We are still relevant, we are not old-fashioned, we have a purpose and, as Helen Mirren says, “We are gold, not old”.

  • Make sure that cold drinking water is always available
  • Ensure a well-ventilated environment
  • Offer menopause awareness training for every manager: make it part of the culture, not a subject everyone is too embarrassed to talk about
  • Identify any adjustments that may be needed, eg would flexible working help?
  • Better staff engagement
  • Reduced turnover, leading to lower recruitment costs: one in four women consider leaving work as they struggle to cope with symptoms
  • Creating an inclusive place to work
  • Demonstrating your investment in people, which helps in many ways, including accreditation
  • Reduced risk of employment tribunals