Managing menopause in the workplace – common sense prevails

Kath Harmeston, a seasoned non-executive director and procurement veteran, explains why the new EHRC guidance on supportive work environments for women experiencing menopause is common sense 

Menopause at work

Menopause is a significant and life-changing biological part of the ageing process that affects women aged between 45 and 55. Some cancer treatments or surgery can activate the menopause earlier than this age range too. 

As we age, significant changes in hormone levels can produce a wide range of symptoms such as hot flushes, weight gain, brain fog, memory loss, mood swings, anxiety and depression. Each woman experiences menopause differently: some sail through this phase of their lives citing it as liberating and others are brought to their knees by overwhelming emotional and physical changes.

Approximately 4 million women aged 45 to 55 are employed in the UK, with women over 50 representing the fastest-growing segment of the workforce. In 2021, the government’s Women and Equalities Committee published a report on menopause and the workplace. One in 10 women surveyed for it said they had left their jobs due to being overwhelmed by debilitating menopause symptoms. Put simply, women shouldn’t have to “tough it out” due to lack of support from their employer.

Midlife is a significant time. Many women are looking forward to finally paying off their mortgages and successfully watching their children leave the nest, while enjoying more time for themselves outside of work. This dynamic, combined with over 30 years’ experience in life and business, creates a powerful new lease of energy and perspective within the demographic. These women are motivated to go for new opportunities in the workplace – some even consider taking a sabbatical or retraining for an entirely new career. 

It is therefore ironic that menopause creeps in at a time when many women are at the peak of their lives and careers, having survived many change cycles over the years. Unsympathetic line managers who are ignorant about the menopause may tip the balance, leaving menopausal women at risk of being overlooked for promotions, new roles or may even place them on notice if their performance has declined. 

It can be frustrating and isolating to be impeded by an unpredictable biological process. Menopausal women need reassurance that “this too shall pass” and that there is light, and new life, at the end of the tunnel. They also need understanding and discretion in the workplace to provide them with practical and simple alterations to get through the rough patches. 

Women who experience discrimination in the workplace, due to menopause, are now protected by The Equality Act 2010. The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) recently issued new guidance stating that symptoms of the menopause can be considered a disability and therefore employers face being sued if they do not make “reasonable adjustments”. 

Research by BUPA, cited in the Women and Equalities Committee report, showed that 900,000 women left their jobs for an unspecified period because of the symptoms of menopause. It seems that many women simply cannot face the time, resources and emotional sacrifice required to fight for fair treatment. 

Line managers require education about the menopause, and how to deal with it in their teams, including the authority to make temporary or permanent adjustments for this segment of the workforce. It can be as simple as providing the following.

  • Counselling and supportive discussions with the employee
  • Moving employees to a cooler part of the office
  • Supplying fans at desks
  • Adjusting uniforms or providing more changes of uniform
  • Allocating flexible working hours and off-site working days

Women aged 45 and over are a valuable asset in the workplace as they have amassed significant knowledge in both work and life, not to mention strong communication and decisive problem-solving skills. Smart employers are waking up to the fact that they will continue to experience an ongoing bow wave of female staff entering menopause. Effective policies will prevent recruiting and training new replacements. 

Common sense prevails going forward: simple policies and line management education on the menopause will prevent a loss in valuable talent. It’s the right thing to do.

Kath Harmeston FCIPS is a seasoned management consultant, senior procurement professional, and non-executive director. She has previously worked as a managing partner, chief procurement officer and group procurement director across a number of UK public-sector organisations.