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Over the past 4 years, references to the menopause in cases of unfair dismissal or direct sex discrimination at employment tribunals have increased significantly. And, according to House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee’s ongoing inquiry, almost 1 million women in the UK have left their jobs because of menopausal symptoms.
The Committee scrutinises existing legislation and workplace practices, to consider whether enough is being done to address the issue. Women have told the Committee they want employers to make reasonable adjustments and provide greater flexibility, as well as remove stigma, encourage openness, provide education on the issues, and raise awareness.
The National Institute of Aging says the menopausal transition begins between the ages of 45 and 55 and can last from 7 to 14 years.
Symptoms can manifest in both mental and physical ways.
Mental health disruptions include changes in mood including depression, anxiety, mood swings, low self-esteem and problems with memory or concentration.
Physical symptoms can include difficulty sleeping, headaches and migraines, muscle aches and joint pain, weight gain and hot flashes. About 75% of women report hot flashes which can turn the skin red and blotchy and can lead to sweating, heart palpitations and dizziness.
There are a number of fairly simple and practical steps that employers can and should implement to support staff and get ahead of changing expectations.
Education and building a culture of understanding are key to breaking down stereotypes and stamping out stereotypical comments such as those around hot flashes, which are similar to jokes about women being overly emotional because of their period. This educational approach will help prevent employees and employers from remaining stuck in stereotypes and assumptions, which are often the beginning of discrimination claims.
It’s vital that managers create a safe environment where women feel comfortable talking about issues they’re experiencing. Particularly if their line manager is a man. Women may not feel comfortable speaking to male colleagues, so it’s critical that support and other options are readily available and easily accessible. These could include HR, an employee resource group or welfare officer.
To help alleviate the discomfort that the menopause can bring may include providing fans at all employees’ desks to counter hot flashes, being mindful that only offering fans to those who need them may draw unwanted attention to women experiencing the menopause, creating embarrassment and potentially discrimination. It’s also vital to equip HR with mental health/self-care tips that can help diminish the mental health symptoms that are experienced during the menopause. These self-care tips may include meditation, a balanced diet and prioritizing healthy sleeping patterns.
Employees could also consider implementing a judgment-free menopause flexibility scheme that allows women experiencing the menopause to work from home, particularly, if they are experiencing physical discomfort and pain, brain fog, depression, or anxiety.
Ultimately, employers should be proactive, not reactive and seek to broach the subject before it’s raised or becomes an issue. This can include the menopause being written into an employee health guidebook. Employers should also consistently keep track of the gender and age profile of their workforce.
Menopausal women are the fastest growing demographic in the workforce, and it’s critical for organisations to address this issue. With 3 in 5 women negatively affected at work because of the menopause, organisations should adopt a proactive, not reactive approach to support, retain and attract staff and stamp out the possibility of discrimination before they face a potentially costly legal battle.
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