Menopause - The ultimate 'taboo' subject

Sally Stainton-Roberts

April 11 2021
Sally Stainton-Roberts, HR Manager at EPM, talks about a subject that many people find uncomfortable discussing, in the hope of starting to encourage more honest and open conversations on the matter in the workplace. She delves into how to offer support for those colleagues affected and offers top tips to assist line managers.

What is the ultimate taboo subject?

Now, take a breather...pause...think

One which many people find uncomfortable discussing, but that can have a significant effect on the health and wellbeing of people of all ages. That’s why having awareness of what it is, the impact on work and homelife, and how to support colleagues and friends is so important.

Some of the most impactful symptoms at work include:

• Fatigue • Insomnia • Hot flushes • Anxiety and worry • Poor concentration • Memory disturbances

After reading at least one of these symptoms, you may have realised that we’re talking about a very natural part of ageing – the menopause.

As you know, a significant percentage of school employees are women (particularly over the age of 40). And, for every 10 women experiencing menopausal symptoms, six say that it has a negative impact on their work and strongly impacts their life.

With the right support women don’t need to press pause on their career - we need to break the taboo and start talking openly about the menopause at work.

The facts

  • Menopausal symptoms are typically experienced for several years and best described as a ‘transition’ rather than a one-off event
  • It typically occurs between age 45 and 55 (but that doesn’t mean to say younger women go unaffected – there is in fact a ‘perimenopause’ stage, and women can start this phase as early as their twenties)
  • Early onset can be a result of surgery, illness or medical treatment (such as chemotherapy)
  • Symptoms usually last between 4 and 8 years
  • There are 30 recognised symptoms in total, including:
    • muscle and joint stiffness, aches and pains
    • recurrent urinary tract infections (UTIs) including cystitis
    • headaches
    • skin changes (dryness, acne, general itchiness).
  • All women will experience menopause in a unique way - 75% will have some symptoms, with 1 in 4 experiencing severe and debilitating symptoms.

It's good to talk

Making it easy for someone to open up to you will help with identifying the support they need. Menopause can affect people’s confidence and it can be very daunting talking to someone who has no knowledge or awareness of it. Therefore, the more supportive and knowledgeable you are on the subject, the more likely women will feel comfortable approaching you and discussing how the menopause is affecting their health and their work – you’ll also increase your confidence on the matter too.

While any health condition can understandably be a sensitive and personal issue, some menopausal symptoms can manifest themselves in a particularly intimate, and even visible, way.

As a line manager, if you have concerns about someone’s wellbeing or performance, it’s best not to make assumptions. Instead, ask general, open questions such as, ‘How are you doing at the moment?’ or ‘I’ve noticed you’ve been arriving late recently, and I wondered if you’re okay?’. It’s then up to the individual to disclose any particular symptoms or health issues they may be experiencing. Approach conversations with empathy and arrange regular catch-ups or 1-2-1s to start the conversation. Remember, these should always be in a private, confidential, setting where the employee feels at ease.

How to offer support

As a line manager, you play a significant role in ensuring that anyone experiencing menopausal symptoms gets the same support and understanding as they would with any other health issue. Good people management is fundamental to supporting employee health and wellbeing, this includes spotting early signs of ill health or distress and initiating early intervention, where appropriate. Of course, colleagues, friends and family members also have a crucial supportive role.

Since some people aren’t aware that the symptoms they may be experiencing are due to menopause, it’s worth suggesting that the individual consults their GP for support with advice and medication, this could include Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT).

People who can’t take HRT due to other medical conditions can sometimes find relief through other methods, for example acupuncture, however it’s important to seek advice from a GP.

You’ll also need to ensure that you’re fulfilling your legal responsibility for Health & Safety to ensure that an employee’s symptoms are not being exacerbated by their job. Employers have a legal duty to make a suitable and sufficient assessment of the workplace risks, considering the specific needs of menopausal women. Often, making simple changes to the working environment can help to alleviate the impact of some symptoms.

A risk assessment should look at issues that can worsen symptoms such as:

  • temperature and ventilation
  • the materials used in any uniform or corporate clothing
  • access to toilet facilities and access to cold water.

Top tips for line managers

It’s important to set the right tone when opening a conversation about any sensitive issue. But, try not to worry too much – being over-sensitive will stop you from doing or saying anything. Review this checklist before approaching a sensitive conversation, and you won’t go far wrong:

  • Avoid interruptions – switch off phones, ensure colleagues can’t walk in and interrupt
  • Ask simple, open, non-judgemental questions
  • Avoid judgemental or patronising responses
  • Speak calmly
  • Maintain good eye contact
  • Listen actively and carefully
  • Encourage the employee to talk
  • Give the employee ample opportunity to explain the situation in their own words
  • Show empathy and understanding
  • Be prepared for some silences and be patient
  • Focus on the person, not the problem
  • Avoid making assumptions or being prescriptive.

Further help

If you need further support and advice for employees then you could refer them to their GP, Occupational Health, and your Employee Assistance Programme (if you have one). There are also organisations that support people with menopause:

Published: April 2021 and featured in: April's edition of Education Insights

Content expert: Sally Stainton-Roberts, Editor: Annika Guerge

If you’re looking for support managing employee wellbeing or would like to learn more about our model policies and letters, along with relevant training, please talk to us.

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