Menopause: Career-pause for women?
A lack of support to help manage menopause symptoms in the workplace is ruining women’s careers, with many feeling forced to forego promotion or even leave their jobs. But the narrative is shifting. Employers are realising doing nothing could be damaging not just for the women affected but for business too, as Marilyn Wright reports
Heart palpitations, hot flushes, joint pain, dizzy spells – just four of the 34 potential menopause symptoms. No fun for women in any situation, but in the workplace it can be a nightmare. Many fear being sidelined or even forced out of their job if they ask for support to manage symptoms, which can also include irritability, depression and crippling anxiety.
They are concerns that were recently highlighted by women giving evidence to the Women and Equalities Committee’s current inquiry into menopause and the workplace, including Samantha from London. “I spoke to the nominated safeguarding officer but was told to ‘dial down the behaviour’. They eventually sacked me without notice after an investigation that completely dismissed my menopausal symptoms,” she says.
Sadly, Samantha’s experience is not unusual. A survey by Bupa and the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development found that three in five menopausal women were negatively impacted at work.
Employers have a huge role to play in improving women’s menopause experiences
In separate research by Vodafone, 33 per cent said they hid their symptoms – a trend that appals Caroline Nokes MP, chair of the Women and Equalities Committee.
“What has had the most impact on me is the number of women who have privately contacted me, or asked for their formal evidence to be kept confidential or anonymised, because even now they are worried that to even disclose they are suffering from difficult menopause symptoms will negatively impact their careers,” Nokes tells The House.
It is this lack of support that Nokes and others fear risks hindering gender equality and blocking women from taking on senior roles.
The results of a poll of 3,800 women, carried out for menopause specialist Dr Louise Newson who runs the non-profit Newson Health Research and Education, found more than one in five passed on the chance to go for a promotion they would have otherwise considered, 19 per cent reduced their hours, and 12 per cent resigned as a result of their menopause symptoms.
The trend is a worrying one given that many workers reach the peak of their careers just as the menopause hits (generally between the ages of 45 and 55).
And as well as losing knowledge, experience and talent, businesses that fail to support employees through the menopause also risk litigation.
On average, menopause symptoms last around four years, with around one in 10 experiencing them for up to 12. Symptoms tend to be severe for 25 per cent and, for some, are so bad they amount to a disability under the Equality Act, opening the door to disability discrimination claims.
Figures from the HM Courts and Tribunals Service show there were five employment tribunal claims referencing menopause in 2018. In 2021, that rose to 10 in the first six months alone. The numbers are small but the trend is clear – and it is one Nokes is keen to address in her committee’s inquiry to examine existing legislation.
She is concerned, however, at the prospect of using disability legislation to address a normal experience of ageing.
“We have taken evidence from leading employment lawyers identifying the challenges with the current legislation. It is just wrong that women are often reduced to using disability discrimination legislation in order to take cases to a tribunal. The menopause is simply not a disability,” Nokes adds.
Nokes and her fellow committee members would like to see a working world where these issues do not reach the tribunal stage.
Carolyn Harris MP, whose Private Members’ Bill successfully petitioned the government to reduce hormone replacement therapy (HRT) prescription charges, and who chairs the All Party Parliamentary Group on Menopause, tells The House: “Employers have a huge role to play in improving women’s menopause experiences. I have heard far too many accounts of women being given warnings, sacked, or made to feel like they have no choice but to resign due to menopausal symptoms.
“Almost 80 per cent of menopausal women are in work, and most plan to work for many years longer, so employers need to support them.”
It’s a view backed by Lisa, another of the women who contributed to the Menopause and the Workplace inquiry.
“Companies need to recognise that symptoms can be significant and have a serious impact on women’s ability to do their job for years,” she says. “Practical solutions like desk fans [and] having a female rep to contact would be great.”
Harris is keen to emphasise that simple steps like the ones Lisa suggests can make a huge difference: “We need employers, who know their own businesses, to commit to making the adjustments that will improve worklife for their employees. Be it flexible hours, relaxed uniform policies, changes to the working environment or support groups, I would love to see businesses making those adjustments and taking pride in the fact they are menopause-friendly workplaces,” Harris says.
Some businesses have already taken note. The law firm Freshfields launched its menopause policy at the beginning of February. Claire Wills, London managing partner, tells The House the move was “a direct response to feedback internally from our people, who asked for support in this area”.
The policy sets out the support and benefits available to manage the menopause at work, including a paid menopause plan and time off for medical appointments.
“We’ve taken a holistic approach,” explains Wills. “The difference between this and what some other businesses are offering is that we are paying for the expert advice and guidance, not just providing an app or route to connect employees to the experts.
“It’s so far been received very well. We’ve had feedback from colleagues across the business – including male partners – on it being a positive development for the firm.”
Freshfields has also become a signatory to the Menopause Workplace Pledge. Since its launch in 2021, close to 500 firms across a range of industries, including TSB, John Lewis, and Channel 4, have signed up to take positive action to make sure everyone going through the menopause is supported.
But Professor Dame Lesley Regan, Wellbeing of Women chair, the charity that created the pledge, thinks the UK can do better.
“While we are delighted with the overwhelming support for our campaign by businesses and organisations across the country, we can and must do more. We call on every employer to sign the Menopause Workplace Pledge,” she says.
This rallying cry is echoed by Nokes. “There is no doubt there are some great examples of companies who have established effective menopause policies, they are implementing them and helping women with sensible interventions and adjustments,” she says. “But that is not the case everywhere, and we have heard about policies which lie unused in filing cabinets.”
With research commissioned by the menopause support firm Health & Her revealing the UK is losing 14 million working days a year due to menopause symptoms, the consequences of doing nothing is damaging for both the women affected, and the economy.
Hopefully, the narrative is shifting as prominent women share stories about the difficulties of managing the menopause in the workplace.
Nicola Sturgeon spoke frankly in a recent podcast about her experience of the menopause. And shadow care minister Liz Kendall, during a Commons debate to consider the Menopause (Support and Services) Bill, described how the onset of menopause had left her exhausted and aching.
Many male politicians are also onside. East Devon MP Simon Jupp used Prime Minister’s Questions in February to raise the need for improved menopause services in the South West.
Jupp tells The House: “It is an issue that many of us have ducked talking about for too long, even though menopause symptoms can be severe and affect everyday life.
“I hope the government looks seriously at proposals to help address the challenges women going through the menopause face in the workplace.”
With today’s women living – and working – for longer, the menopause should not be seen as an end point. As Sian, another contributor to the Menopause and the Workplace inquiry, says: “These are generally very experienced workers with a lot to offer a business. It would surely be cost-effective to keep this experience and know-how by making provision for them.”
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.