HR & Hot Flushes: Menopause Stigma In The Workplace
Menopause impacts us from the bedroom to the boardroom. Just this week, it was revealed that the UK government rejected committee recommendations to consult on making menopause a protected characteristic. Firstly, and disappointingly, it voiced concerns that the move could see discrimination against men ‘suffering long-term medical conditions’. It also suggested that those experiencing ‘substantial and longer-term’ menopausal symptoms should already be protected by existing workplace discrimination legislation. The Women and Equalities Committee also recommended piloting a workplace menopause leave policy in England to tackle the “missed opportunity to protect vast numbers of talented and experienced women from leaving the workforce”. The government’s response? That would be ‘unnecessary’. *Insert anguished scream here*.
During her time in the NHS GP practice, our Co-Founder Dr Sarah Welsh saw many people experiencing menopause and can testify that its impact varies from negligible to debilitating. In fact, the physical and mental impacts are driving 1 in 10 menopausal people to leave their jobs - and as a society, we are worse off for loss of that talent. Menopause isn’t just hot flashes or feeling a little forgetful. In fact, there are over 62 symptoms of menopause that doctors report seeing, including:
- Sleep problems
- Mood changes
- Irregular periods
- Dry skin
- Brain fog
- Collagen loss
- Breast tenderness
Any of these or in combination, can interrupt work, cause loss of confidence and overall negatively impact work performance.
Why do we need additional workplace laws to protect the rights of those experiencing menopause?
Essentially, the passing of the law would have allowed menopause to be a “protected characteristic” under the Equality Act - which would make it illegal to discriminate against an employee experiencing it. Let’s explore how some of the physical and mental impacts of menopause can make it harder to work to the best of your ability. For example, running on low to no sleep can make it more difficult to concentrate, whilst fatigue can impact the ability to make swift decisions. Brain fog or memory loss, especially if you were previously adept at remembering minutiae of a meeting, can be distressing and create feelings of anxiety. Hot flashes at random times can be embarrassing, too. Usually characterised as a sudden feeling of warmth in the face, chest and neck, it’s often accompanied by red, flushed skin and sweating (which can be excessive, as Sex and the City’s Samantha Jones famously found).
When it comes to managing symptoms at work, some jobs are better than others, with working from home during global lockdowns offering an unexpected respite. We have to note however, that many conversations about menopause in the workplace refer to its symptoms impacting performance in pitches, presentations and business meetings. This excludes the large segment of population who do not work in office-based roles, and whose roles are far less likely to be flexible around the specific challenges of menopause e.g.
- If you’re in a retail role, you might be unable to step away from public-facing duties or swap shifts when experiencing debilitating symptoms.
- Around 1 in 6 UK teachers are estimated to be in the menopausal transition. Managing a classroom and sharing knowledge can be tough with brain fog and memory loss.
- Majorly male dominated sectors are currently not set up to support healthcare needs, with 65% of distribution businesses in the UK not having a menopause policy in place.
Given women’s role in the workplace is still subject to discrimination, it’s no wonder this is a concern. Social stigma around menopause is pervasive, and it's often dismissed as ‘women’s troubles’ or turned into the punchline of a joke. These outdated attitudes can make it harder to seek help, with concerns cited around privacy, embarrassment and feeling unsure of managerial support. Equally, the lack of open, shame-free education at schools and beyond for all is harmful in that it doesn’t equip and empower us as a society to understand, step up and support.
This conversation needs to be inclusive of trans and non-binary folk experiencing menopause, who are already often at a disadvantage at work. Whilst the UK’s Equality Act 2010 makes it illegal to discriminate against someone for their sexual orientation or gender identity, a recent YouGov survey shows that trans people are increasingly hiding their identity in the workplace. For those who have chosen to withhold their trans or non-binary status, the stress and/or threat of discrimination can make it even less likely to disclose or discuss menopausal symptoms.
Which firms have a Menopause Policy in place?
Over 600 in the UK - including:
At HANX, we don’t have a Menopause Policy - yet. As a small team that’s only recently hit five team members, it’s one of the many areas behind-the-scenes that we’re developing as we grow. We’ve made a start with private healthcare options and flexible working to accommodate cervical screening as part of Jo’s Cervical Trust’s Time to Test movement, but we’re committed to doing more, and better for our people. If you’re a small business founder and like us, want to do the same for your employees, try using Channel 4’s Menopause Policy Guidance as a start.
What happens next?
- We highly recommend the government reconsider their decision, as part of a more inclusive evolution of workplace discrimination and health accommodation policy. Where they have concerns that greater protection for those in menopause might open discrimination against others with health conditions, doesn’t that suggest our current policies aren’t fit for purpose in contemporary society?
- Just as one size doesn’t fit all, one law doesn’t fit all. Ideally, we’d see greater nuance enter the conversation when it comes to workplace healthcare adjustments. For example, employers need to consider the trans and non-binary community when putting menopause support in place.
- Employers should consider the value of flexible working as a supportive measure for those experiencing menopause (and broader healthcare concerns). Hot flashes have been linked to menopausal people having a higher intention of leaving the workforce, and reports have shown that working from home has been invaluable to many managing this particularly visible symptom.
- Whether an employer or employee, consider your company’s dress code policy (if you have one). We can all support and create better working conditions for our friends and colleagues who are in peri/menopause. Grocery giant (and HANX stockist!) Tesco has recently committed to reworking uniforms in more breathable fabrics - we love to see it.
- Consider where you can add tangible value. Last year, we were thrilled to see our stockist Boots announce that they will cover the cost of prescriptions for hormone replacement therapy (HRT) for eligible team members. The move could help over 8,000 of its staff save up to £224 a year - a huge move to remove the financial accessibility barrier.