Handling the menopause in the workplace

Women eh? No sooner have we finished getting up the duff than we start needing time off to look after our kids. And then, to add insult to injury, we start to fall apart after our childbearing years and are now asking for even more allowances. Tsk!

You might have read about this over recent months as it is becoming a new frontline in the discussion around discrimination in the workplace.

In case you’re not familiar with the biology, all women enter the perimenopause at some point in their life as their bodies stops producing as much oestrogen. If puberty is the time of life when girls are gearing up to become fertile and bear children, the perimenopause is its mirror twin. And, like puberty, it can be a fraught time for a woman. Eventually, it ends with the capital ‘m’ Menopause, after which they can no longer have kids.

It can start at almost any age, but typically affects women in their late mid forties (hi!). The symptoms are a similar to those suffered during puberty. Avert your eyes fellas:

  • Cramps and other menstrual pains
  • Headaches
  • Mood swings
  • Fatigue
  • Problems with sleep
  • Depression and issues with self-confidence.

As you can imagine these can cause problems not just for the woman, but for anyone who employs them. Or lives with them. The statistics are pretty stark.

  • 88% of women say it affects their work
  • 90% say their workplace have no policy around menopause
  • 31% say that their workplace actively treat the menopause negatively

It has been argued that allowances should be made in the workplace for women at this time of their lives – and that not making such allowances is effectively sex discrimination, with a side of age discrimination – and even potentially disability.

The law is a little hazy on this point, without too much case precedence to look at, but I don’t think we need to jump straight to legalities in any case: it’s all about taking personal care of your employees.

“Hey – you having the menopause or what?”

Never – and I repeat NEVER – ask this question directly like that! But, just be mindful that if a female employee seems to be suffering from any of the symptoms above to a more than usual degree that it is a possibility. It is also something that she might not feel comfortable about discussing in any event. If she is suffering from a lack of confidence in herself or suffering from depression as a result then she’s unlikely to respond well to intrusive questioning.

So, it’s just something to bear in mind. If you are worried about an employee’s mood or performance, it is far better to ask her open questions about how she’s feeling or if there’s anything you need to know so that you can help her.

Sometimes, it will be a relief to confide in someone, and sometimes it will be very awkward, but if you don’t ask you just won’t know. Given the choice, most women will generally be willing to discuss it in general terms, but it is still a fairly taboo subject for many.

It’s about individuals

The menopause can manifest in a thousand different ways. And as it is such a long process – up to a decade in some cases – the intensity of the symptoms can vary wildly even in a single woman’s experience. Therefore, it’s not the kind of thing that lends itself easily to simple policy instructions.

This hasn’t stopped unions and politicians pushing for companies to adopt specific policies for the menopause in the same way that policies for pregnancy exist, and you might feel that you need that kind of structure in place.

For the most part, I feel it is much better to find out what specific things can help an individual. It may be that hot flushes mean that she occasionally needs a breath of fresh air. So it’s a matter for you to discuss whether that means opening a window, or just giving her the option to pop out into the car park for five minutes when she needs to.

Questions around mood swings can obviously be a more delicate matter to deal with, but even just having awareness that its related to hormonal changes can help to change your own attitude if there are moments of emotional stress between you. As I’ve mentioned above, depression is a not uncommon side effect of the menopause so it should be treated using many of the same methods you would to handle general mental health in your employees.

In short…

If you employee women (and you really should. We’re great!) then at some point this is likely to happen. While there is a background argument about legal issues and the potential for sex discrimination to come into play, the fact is that it’s best dealt with through healthy discussion, a willingness to listen, and accommodation where possible.

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