Managing menopause in the workplace is no longer a taboo subject. It is estimated that 70% of women who are at the ‘menopausal age’ work. This means there are approximately 2.5 million women in the US who continue to go to work as they go through the menopause. This is a huge section of the workforce and, although all women experience menopause differently, many of them could potentially be struggling with their symptoms. Because of the nature of the menopause, it’s often something that women may feel reluctant or embarrassed to discuss with their employer.
Although there are currently no fixed laws within the US that directly relate to menopause, there is legislation that states employers are responsible for the health, safety and wellbeing of their staff. So a woman who is struggling to carry out her duties because of menopausal symptoms would fit into that bracket and would therefore be entitled to support and extra consideration. Unison and the TUC in the UK have written guidance for how employers should be dealing with menopause in the workplace.
If you are a working woman who is going through the menopause or an employer who has menopausal women on their team, here are just a few things to be aware of.
How can the menopause affect work performance?
In short, menopause is when a women’s estrogen levels drop and menstruation ceases. Although the effects of this bodily change tend to vary from woman to woman, there will usually be at least some symptoms and on average they can last for up to four years. Some of the most common symptoms that could interfere with a woman’s working life include difficulty sleeping, fatigue and joint/muscle pain. All of this could make a manual job (or one where a lot of standing is required) particularly difficult.
Three out of four women will also experience hot flushes during the menopause which involves an intense feeling of heat spreading throughout the body, sometimes leading to sweating and redness. If a woman works in a stuffy office, this may exacerbate these symptoms.
Because of hormonal changes, a woman may find that her concentration and mood may be affected too. Several women complain of anxiety, memory problems and irritability during the menopause. This can be problematic when you are dealing with customers and stressful situations.
Other conditions linked to the menopause include heart palpitations, cystitis/urinary tract infections and even increased risk from other, more serious conditions such as osteoporosis. In short, it isn’t much fun and can make even the simplest of tasks much harder work.
What can the woman do?
Although you may feel embarrassed about talking to your employer about your condition, they have a duty of care to support you and make your working life as easy as possible. Don’t be afraid to discuss your symptoms and make requests based on what you feel able to manage. Taking on too much or dealing with problematic workloads will make your symptoms worse and may eventually lead to you having to take time off.
Practising a healthy lifestyle outside of work may also help improve your overall symptoms. Eating a healthy, well balanced diet packed full of vitamins and minerals may help alleviate symptoms of fatigue – complex carbohydrates such as wholegrains and vegetables can provide the body with stable, long lasting periods of energy.
Exercise and meditation can also be natural ways of improving mood and battling the feelings of stress and anxiety that come with such dramatic bodily changes. You may even be able to take some of these techniques into work with you – learning to regulate your breathing in stressful situations can definitely be a quick and effective way of discreetly calming you down.
What can the employer do to manage menopause in the workplace?
The Trade Union guide suggests that there are a number of ways in which consideration and support can be given to working women going through the menopause. After all this can be a long term issue and so finding a way to support the employee in their work is more beneficial than them prolonged periods of absence. Depending on the severity of their symptoms, they may request to reduce their working hours or duties. Or their situation could be improved with something as simple as providing them with a fan on their desk for temperature regulation or being more flexible with toilet breaks. Above all else, an employer should seek to reduce the stigma surrounding menopause and ensure that their managers are well equipped to intelligently and sensitively deal with the issue. Despite this, some women will still feel uncomfortable about going to their line manager so providing them with the relevant information and internal support networks is important. In some cases they may be able to speak to their HR department directly or going through an Employee Assistance Programme to discuss their concerns.
In November 2016, The Faculty of Occupational Medicine of The Royal College of Physicians UK, issued Guidance on Menopause and the Workplace. You can download the pdf here.
Here you can download a TUC pdf entitled ‘Supporting women through the menopause’. Although this is a UK document it will help those of you working in the US as it is in line with the current US legislation.
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