The menopause affects almost half of the country’s workforce at some point in their career, but whereas many people only experience mild symptoms, for some it can have a serious impact on home, social and working life.

It is estimated that 13 million people in the UK are currently peri-menopausal – the period leading up to menopause – or menopausal, according to the Local Government Association. Yet a third of employees experiencing the menopause try to hide symptoms at work, with half of respondents stating that they feel too embarrassed to ask for support, according to a recent survey conducted by Vodafone. The topic remains a taboo in the workplace – and this needs to be addressed if we want to enact a meaningful response to the issue.

Removing the stigma

In recent years, we have thankfully begun to see the stigma surrounding other ‘taboo’ workplace issues, such as mental health, break down. And as the issue has become a more prevalent feature of public discourse, more and more employers have made provisions to address mental health issues in the workplace.

It is time that we begin to acknowledge the impact of the menopause in a similar vein, and more widely, the impact of issues surrounding menstrual health – including conditions such as endometriosis and adenomyosis – have on employees, and act accordingly to provide support where possible.

A recent poll carried out by charity Bloody Good Period revealed the shocking reality of the way that the issue is regarded in the workforce. Nearly nine in ten (87 per cent) people who menstruate have experienced stress or anxiety in the workplace because of their period – yet a third (33 per cent) of respondents felt it was ‘unprofessional’ to mention their menstrual health to their employer, with more than a quarter claiming that they have never been given support for the issue.

And when it comes to the menopause, one in four women have considered leaving their job, and one in ten have resigned due to the menopause, according to a survey by Nuffield Health. But a lack of suitable support measures leaves many employers at risk of losing valuable, experienced, and talented members of staff.

We are already beginning to see evidence of employers acting upon the issue – Standard Chartered Bank, for example, recently commissioned a study into the challenges faced by those experiencing the menopause in the financial services sector. This is a step in the right direction, but more needs to be done – and fast.

There are a range of practical steps that HR departments can take to mitigate the effects of common menopausal symptoms, or any other conditions associated with menstrual health, and help affected workers feel more supported in the workplace. These range from the provision of robust flexible working arrangements, to practical measures such as seating employees near windows or air conditioning to ease hot flushes or providing hot water bottles and hot drinks to ease pain associated with endometriosis. Another step employers can take to mitigate the impact of the menopause is the development of a truly inclusive workplace, and education and training on the topic is also key.

By increasing awareness around the impact that the menopause can have on the lives of employees, HR professionals can enable people to receive the help and support they need. A healthy workplace culture will open up safe spaces for conversations, so that people who are experiencing symptoms that may impact their day-to-day duties feel empowered to express their needs and requirements.

As well as making affected employees feel more supported, supporting employees would also help offer tangible benefits to both employees and employers in the long term with improved employee engagement, reduced absenteeism, and improved staff retention. However, in order to truly foster an environment where every employee feels able to work to the best of their ability, it is key that we broaden the conversation to address wider issues around menstrual health.

Opening up the conversation

Despite affecting almost half of the population, only in the last decade have companies started to introduce HR policies based on employee menstrual cycles. For example, in 2019 medical company Intimina UK introduced flexible working hours for staff during their period, and began providing an allowance for sanitary products.

The fact that it took so long to take such a small step illustrates how the stigma around the matter restricts any meaningful progress. By opening up a dialogue, providing support and training, backing robust flexible working arrangements and implementing or amending policies that cover issues relating to the menopause/menstrual cycles, employers can begin to foster a more inclusive environment where menstrual health and wider reproductive rights are no longer ‘taboo’.

Not only would this increase awareness amongst all employees of the challenges those who menstruate face, it can also eradicate any oversight when it comes to workplace facilities provided by employers. Research conducted by HR specialists DPG revealed that more than a quarter of workplaces in the UK do not provide sanitary bins at their work, while almost a third of women do not have constant access to a toilet. Compounding this, only 10 per cent of respondents said that their employer provides free sanitary products.

Oversights such as this can be easily solved, but employers and HR Directors must be proactive in order to do so.

Engaging with staff about needs and wants is the first step towards developing a truly inclusive working environment, and ensuring that no employee gets left behind, as we strive for equality.