Last month, Channel 4 aired a documentary - Sex, Myths and the Menopause, presented by Davina McColl. It revealed that many women experiencing menopausal symptoms are wrongly diagnosed and are prescribed medicines that don't tackle the core issue. Even those women who know that their symptoms are caused by menopause are often deterred from taking HRT because they are worried about developing breast cancer. In fact, only one in ten women take HRT in the UK despite overwhelming evidence that HRT has huge health benefits for most women and carries very few risks.
It's about time that menopause is openly discussed as a health and work issue. But we're only at the start of this journey. Some large organisations have really invested in being 'menopause aware' and provide information, training and support to staff, but most haven't. It’s certainly an issue that colleges need to consider, particularly given the 72% / 28% female/male gender balance in the FE sector as a whole.
Menopause affects all woman at some point in their life. Around 80% of women who are peri-menopausal or menopausal have symptoms including loss of confidence, disrupted sleep, anxiety, poor memory, joint and muscle pains, hair and skin changes, headaches / worsening migraines as well as the more commonly reported hot flushes. Those symptoms impact on all aspects of life and can significantly affect their physical and psychological wellbeing.
The fact is that 51% of the population are female. Of these, 71% work and 4.3 million women over 50 years of age are in the workforce. And that figure is expected to rise. The UK Commission for Employment and Skills predicts that the UK workforce in 2030 will be 'more multi-generational as well as older and female'. Employers that sideline menopause as a 'women's issue' will lose out.
We held an HR Conference recently which included a module on the menopause and the law. It's clear from the feedback we received that there is a huge appetite amongst HR practitioners to support menopausal women in their organisations and retain their skills and experience. There is good reason for this – menopausal symptoms can lead to absence, decline in performance and cause women to leave roles in which they once thrived.
But how to achieve this?
- Develop a strategy. It's helpful to appoint menopause 'champions' who can open up discussions, develop suitable policies and support women. We have a precedent menopause policy you can adapt for your college, available free of charge.
- Signpost where your staff can find reliable information about the menopause and HRT. Women can download the Balance Appwhich has been developed by Newson Health Menopause and Wellbeing Centre. It allows women to track their symptoms, access personalised expert content, share stories and obtain support.
- Consider what changes you can make to support menopausal women. Many organisational changes are free and relatively easy to implement. For example, workplace characteristics that make symptoms worse include: high temperatures, poor ventilation, humidity, no access to quiet or restful spaces, noise, dryness in the atmosphere and a lack of natural light. Think about how you can overcome these by, for example, providing breakout areas that offer quiet places to work in open plan offices, cold water stations and desk fans.
- Support flexible working. Allowing women to make changes to their usual working pattern, including when or where they work is particularly helpful.
- Train your managers so they understand the basics and can make appropriate decisions, and encourage women to speak up where their work is being impacted.
- Accept that all women experience menopause differently. If you take the time to understand how the menopause is affecting individual employees (rather than assuming that everyone needs the same thing) you'll stand a much better chance of retaining the experience, knowledge and support your college needs.
Helen Dyke, Senior Associate in the Employment team at Irwin Mitchell