There is no shortage of challenges being faced by employers at the moment. From protecting the wellbeing of employees, to ensuring that diversity and inclusion agendas keep moving forward. And all while still trying to survive and find growth opportunities during a global pandemic.
There is yet another issue bubbling under the surface and about to become a bigger challenge for employers. The pandemic has drastically heightened stress levels for everyone, but midlife women are facing a particular kind of burnout and, for them, leaving their jobs is a very real possibility. The cost for employers will be more than just financial.
The issue is perimenopause – the lesser recognised early stage of menopause where hormonal imbalance can begin in women’s late 30s. It can, for many, have a significant and severe impact on their physical, emotional and cognitive abilities. Taking place several years before menopause (a one day event) even happens and before common symptoms like hot flushes start, most women do not connect symptoms with the menopause. In fact, 46 per cent of women have never even heard the word perimenopause (Over The Bloody Moon research, 2020).
Why is it specifically an issue for employers?
We are seeing the number of women in employment entering their 40s and 50s rising at a faster rate than any other cohort in the UK (ONS, 2019). It means that for the first time ever there will be more women in the workplace transitioning into perimenopause. These days, many women in their 40s and 50s are at a high point in their careers. In previous generations, they were starting to settle down for retirement or looking after grandchildren. It means that a lot of women (three out of five) now find themselves totally unprepared for the symptoms of perimenopause (Too Little Information report, Avon 2020), while three in five women feel perimenopause has a negative impact at work (CIPD, 2019).
What makes the issue worse is that menopause is still very much a taboo topic in the workplace. Women feel admitting they are going through ‘the change’ in the workplace is a sign of weakness, so they suffer in silence. For them, leaving their jobs is a real possibility. Previous research has shown that one in five women have left their jobs because of perimenopause (Dr Louise Newson, 2018). In the current environment, however, we believe this number is much higher and we’re not being told the underlying reasons of why they leave – these women are falling off the radar (Rebecca Hill, Founder of Wise Sherpa and Over The Bloody Moon Executive Coach Advisor).
This is an issue set to become the next big challenge for employers as they are faced with potentially losing key talent in their workforce. The absence of these women would leave a considerable gap for organisations in terms of knowledge, experience and leadership, not to mention the cost of recruiting or potential legal fees from discrimination complaints.
Without education, policies and practices in place to support women going through this stage, employers may struggle to hold onto their older female talent.
What can employers do?
There is an urgent need for collaboration in workplaces to make the whole menopause experience easier. So, what can they do?
Firstly, carry out a review of current policies, guidance and frameworks. Many organisations will have policies covering health and well-being, flexible working and performance management that perhaps touch on menopause, but are they enough? Some larger employers have recognised that menopause requires specific support and have created separate policies. It’s worth following what they have done. Take for example, Channel 4, which has published its menopause policy for anyone to use as a best practice guide. There are also organisations, like Over The Bloody Moon, that specifically focus on supporting women at this stage and can help employers create guidelines and formal policies that suit their specific needs. Alternatively, the CIPD has resources on how to create a policy.
Identify reasonable adjustments. Employers will need to work out what their standard reasonable adjustments for women going through menopause should be, then ensure that all employees are clear on what they are. This might include flexible or reduced working hours, a set number of consecutive days leave for women without needing a GP note, having a fan at the desk or seating in a well ventilated area. However, there should also be opportunity for individual consultations that allow tailored adjustments to be made if necessary. Both line managers and women experiencing symptoms should be encouraged to be proactive in calling a meeting to discuss these adjustments, rather than waiting for a crisis point.
Remove the ignorance. One recent study showed that 19 per cent of men had never heard the term menopause and 46 per cent of women are unaware of the different stages of menopause. There is still much education and awareness work to be done, not just with the women going through the transition, but with the entire company. Only by implementing company wide workshops, supported by senior management and ongoing internal communication, can this be addressed. For line managers, e-training can help them understand the various stages of menopause and the impact menopause has physically, emotionally, and cognitively. Plus it can ensure their responses are appropriate and do not contribute to stress.
The aim is to help create a place where women feel able to talk more openly about menopause and their experience in and out of work to colleagues.
Cultivate a menopause community. Create networks and initiatives that bring menopausal women together to share their stories and tips, and normalise the symptoms they are encountering. These sessions can be informal and initiated by staff or led by external experts who can offer more structured programmes. Such programmes aim to inspire and educate women on self-care, as well as what they can do to reduce the severity and frequency of their symptoms successfully.
Representation of women in senior roles and at board level has reached a landmark. Let’s not go backwards. As more women transition into the perimenopause stage while in the workplace, employers can make a crucial difference to how they experience it and set the stage for the next generation of working women.