The last taboo, sexism and ageism rolled into one – The Menopause

Menopause. It’s 2020 (how could we miss that?!) and it’s still taboo.

Despite what its name itself seems to suggest, we should no longer be putting a pause in the conversation on Menopause.

Though there have been undeniable leaps towards levelling out the playing field in the workplace, with diversity and inclusion top of the agenda for training programmes, we still have work to do when it comes to addressing the fact of life that is menopause.

And considering that this so-called ‘problem’ affects almost 5 million of the national workforce we can no longer afford a pause in the conversation.

Traditionally, so as not to cause offence, it’s often been referred to as ‘The Change,’ which is exactly what needs to be done to the current approach (or lack there of) to Menopause at work.

What is Menopause and how does it affect employees?

The menopause is the natural cessation of menstruation that usually occurs between the age of 45 and 55, although the average age in the UK for women is 51-years-old.  Considering that there are some 4.9m women who are over 50 years and working, we can reasonably infer that a significant portion of the workforce is comprised of women who have undergone or are undergoing ‘the change.’  

Indeed the Faculty of Occupational Medicine corroborates this point, citing that 8 out of 10 post-menopausal women work in some capacity.

And not only that but the Office of National Statistics records them as the fastest growing part of the workforce, so even more reason that they can no longer be ignored!

Whilst the average age of the last menstrual period when the ovaries cease ovulating is 51, a huge number of women experience symptoms in the 5 or more years prior to this event. This is known as the Climacteric period, when the ovaries may ovulate and function intermittently, and which trigger the start of symptoms. 

Plus when we consider that 1 in 100 women go through the menopause under the age of 40 and that more than three quarters of all women experience symptoms (with many requiring treatment,) then we are looking at a lot of employees in discomfort and feeling unable to ask for support at work. 

It’s perhaps then not surprising that BUPA reported that 1 million women have left their job because of menopausal symptoms. 

And when considering that one in three of the workforce are now over 50 and the current age of retirement is 68, we see that this is both a pertinent and pressing issue that needs addressing – and needs addressing now!

What is the current approach to Menopause at work?

Generally speaking, the topic is just not broached and women are left to suffer in silence.

Especially following the 2003 Million Women’s study which looked into the impact of traditional combined hormone replacement therapy (HRT) on a million women’s years of life.  The study found that those who received the then traditional treatment had a significantly increased risk of suffering breast cancer and cardiovascular disease. 

This stark discovery prompted papper regulators to close almost every menopause clinic in the UK, and since then women have been left to suffer with little or no support for nearly 20 years.

The whole study just fed into the prejudice that there’s nothing to be done and so the only option for women is to put-up and shut-up.

However most would agree that’s pretty fallible logic, as just because one form of treatment and support didn’t work, doesn’t mean that medicine nor society should give up on finding a healthy means to support women undergoing menopause.

In fact, it later transpired that upon further analysis of this data, many of the findings were at best overstated and in many cases wrong.  A study by the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) published in 2006 found that there was actually a reduction of cardiovascular risk and the subset who is at risk were increased was due to the use of synthetic progestogen hormones in this original medication.  Today’s treatment, which uses bio-identical hormones, removes this risk.  

The new analysis for breast cancer showed a reduction in risk for those taking oestrogen alone and only a small increase as seen for women taking combined therapy using synthetic hormones for over 10 years.  

In practice this means that the overall risks are very low and should be assessed on an individual basis.

Clinics are beginning to re-open but the damage is done as we have been left with a generation of doctors who know little or nothing about HRT or the menopause.

And if our medical personnel have left the topic untouched, then it’s no surprise that employees and colleagues tiptoe around the subject too!

Why must businesses help support women undergoing Menopause?

As we’ve addressed above, it’s terrible enough that women have been expected to put-up-and-shut-up for the past twenty years (due to faulty scientific conclusions at that), but now there really is no excuse for any woman to be left to suffer in silence.

The impact of untreated and unsupported symptoms can be personally and professionally devastating.  Not only do women suffer hot flushes, night sweats and vaginal dryness which makes having sex painful, they also suffer from poor sleep, mood disturbance, anxiety, memory and concentration issues.   

Due to lack of scientific research, it remains unclear whether mood, anxiety, memory and concentration issues are caused directly by the fall in hormones or just by lack of sleep as a symptom, but it is clear that it affects the overall wellbeing of anyone experiencing it!

Try to imagine what it must be like to live for just one month of consistently waking up throughout the night hot and bothered to have to shower and change your clothes.

Then add in the intimacy complications of feeling fed up, over-heated and undesirable, it’s enough to affect any individual and their relationship.

It might just sound like being in a tropical country with a fever and without a fan which, unpleasant as that experience would be, would only be temporary.

But alas unmanaged these symptoms don’t just burn out after a few days or even a month, they’re set to stick around for an average of eight years!

Lack of sleep and physical discomfort – and not to mention the impact of the mood swings on relationships – not only affects one’s personal life, but it naturally seeps over into the working day.

The Faculty of Occupational Medicine (FOM) report that almost 50% of women don’t seek medical advice for their symptoms and the vast majority do not feel they can talk to their line managers, especially if the manager is younger and male.  

It therefore makes total sense that The Office of National Statistics found that older women have the highest rates of sickness absence, presumably to ‘deal with’ their symptoms alone as they feel they have no one to talk to. This is not only incredibly isolating for the individual but also damaging for business productivity.

It’s no surprise that for many menopausal women leaving their jobs altogether is considered the easiest option. 

And according to the Wellbeing of Women survey 2016, if they’re not already acting on it then one in four are considering it. 

This is not helpful for the employee or indeed the employer.

Especially when one considers that the cost for replacing a women who earns £30k pa is more than £25k including recruitment and training costs, according to Oxford Economics.

Once businesses start to acknowledge that the menopause and climacteric period is not just a work shift, it’s a period of life that for some can go on for a decade or more, there will be a more level playing ground.

Remaining silent must be seen as just another expression of inequality – those women who may have been professionally marginalised whilst raising a family return to work and find themselves being marginalised yet again.  

We can’t continue to ignore the hot flushed facts.

What’s to be done?

There’s a lot to be done both on the home front and work front, but we shouldn’t let that deter us as ultimately it will serve the employee and the employer alike. 

The FOM 2016 guidelines on the menopause and the workplace recommend workplace training, raising awareness of menopause at work and introducing an array of workable solutions, including uniforms and climate control.  

They also advocate fostering an environment in which women feel comfortable and confident talking to their managers and where in return managers are educated in how best to support their employees. 

Whilst the immediate symptoms may subside over time, a post-menopausal woman’s longer-term risks of osteoporosis and of cardiovascular disease persist, so continued support is required both at home and in the workplace. 

Though for some approaching menopause may seem all doom and gloom, it doesn’t have to be.

There are ways in to alleviate symptoms and control its impact on day-to-day life, such as through diet and lifestyle.

Introducing more soy-based foods into your diet has been shown to improve symptoms and bone health with no impact on breast cancer risk.

Likewise ensuring to incorporate enough healthy and nutritious foods will prevent weight gain often thought to be associated with the menopause, as well as supporting bone, skin and heart health. 

Minor adjustments at home, such as investing in sleep hygiene and exercise, can make a great difference when it comes to dispelling discomfort and keeping in good physical shape. 

And likewise even greater changes at work to create a supportive, educated and understanding environment, where menopause is no longer a taboo, can go all the way to producing happy and productive employees and a solid and thriving business. 

CorLife offers a programme that supports all employees on their health journeys, and particularly doesn’t underestimate the importance of supporting women as they undergo menopause.

We believe in supporting women through this important health period proactively, with our help Employers and female menopausal employees can manage the symptoms more proactively and positively.  

So, instead of putting a pause on the conversation around menopause, we want to encourage a change in approach to ‘the change.’ Now that has to be a win-win for everyone.