Menopause at work: the symptoms – and what support your organisation should provide

By on 12/10/2023 | Updated on 12/10/2023

To mark World Menopause Awareness Month and Global Government Forum’s recently-launched women’s network, here we give an overview of the menopause symptoms you or your colleagues might suffer with – and the workplace support policies governments and civil services are, or should be, implementing

“Early onset dementia, osteoporosis, ringing in my ears when I’m stressed, anxiety, depression, cardiovascular disease, and a strange mental disorder involving loss of nouns.”

This is the list of troubling symptoms Linda describes to her doctor in comedy TV series The Change, broadcast recently by the UK’s Channel 4.

“Well, that’s quite a list. And you’re 50 now? How are your moods… Are you experiencing irritability or rage?” the doctor asks.

“Nothing unjustified,” replies Linda.

His diagnosis: “This all sounds like the menopause to me.”

Like a slew of other British programmes and publications in recent months, The Change sought to bust the misconception held by many that the menopause involves nothing but the odd ‘hot flush’.

Indeed, celebrities including television presenters Davina McCall and Carol Vorderman have spoken openly in the press about their struggles with menopause and perimenopause: McCall detailed her range of symptoms and – having not been taught about the ways women can be affected by it, either during her early education or by the women in her family: “It was the thing nobody talked about” – her concerns about what might be wrong with her. While Vorderman has been open about the severe depression and suicidal thoughts she experienced while going through it. Cases of women taking their employers to court over claims of discrimination or unfair dismissal as a result of their symptoms have also hit the headlines.

Join the Global Government Women’s Network and find out more here  

There seems to be a sea change now in Britain, with the media raising awareness and working to combat the stigma around it, women being encouraged to be open about debilitating menopausal experiences, and healthcare authorities talking about improving menopause training for medical staff, for example. But in many other countries, it is still little talked about.

Here, we list the main symptoms (as detailed by the NHS, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, the World Health Organization and other major public health authorities), and the workplace support policies some governments have put in place – and others should.

The main symptoms

Perimenopausal and menopausal women may experience one of these symptoms, several, none or other less common symptoms not listed here. Note that these can start months or years before periods stop.

  • A change in the normal pattern of your periods, such as becoming irregular
  • Changes to mood, including low mood, anxiety, mood swings and low self-esteem
  • Depression
  • Problems with memory or concentration (sometimes known as ‘brain fog’)
  • Hot flushes – sudden sensation of heat in your face, neck and chest which can make you dizzy
  • Difficult sleeping, which may be the result of night sweats, or insomnia
  • Heart palpitations
  • Headaches and migraines
  • Muscle aches and joint pain
  • Weight gain or change in body shape
  • Dry and itchy skin
  • Reduced sex drive
  • Vaginal dryness and pain, itching or discomfort during sex
  • Recurrent urinary tract infections
  • Incontinence

Workplace support for women going through perimenopause or menopause

As reported by the charity Wellbeing of Women – which focuses on women’s reproductive and gynecological health – research suggests that women find dealing with perimenopause and menopause symptoms most difficult in the workplace. They often choose not to disclose their struggles to colleagues or bosses due to embarrassment, stigma and fear they may be discriminated against, and it is thought that around a quarter of menopausal women consider leaving their jobs due to symptoms.

The charity describes awareness about menopause in workplaces as “shockingly low”. But improving support mechanisms can be beneficial not only for women but for organisations too. Indeed, Wellbeing of Women asserts that when menopausal women are supported at work, it can help increase staff retention, reduce recruitment costs, improve productivity and wellbeing, and lead to a more diverse workforce.

And yet in Global Government Forum’s exclusive survey into gender equity in government workplaces, little more than a third (37%) of public servant respondents who said there is a menopause support mechanism in place in their organisation. Of those, only 13% said it was excellent or good, 7% said it was average, and 16% said it was poor or very poor.

So what can be done to support those experiencing menopause at work?

Studies show that women would like more information and support to help them manage their menopause at work and for there to be better awareness, particularly among managers.

Acas, a charity which offers guidance and training on various employment topics, states that managers should be encouraged to talk about the menopause with all staff, alongside other equality, diversity, health and wellbeing topics to normalise it. And that menopausal staff should be given the option to talk to someone else – such as a member of HR, a trade union representative, or a counsellor from the organisation’s employee assistance programme – if they do not feel comfortable discussing it with their manager.

Other practical advice includes undertaking a workplace risk assessment that involves checking the temperature and ventilation of the building; checking the material and fit of a uniform (if there is one) in case it makes menopausal staff feel too hot or uncomfortable; whether toilet facilities are easily accessible; whether cold drinking water is easily accessible; and whether there is somewhere quiet for staff to rest.

Appointing a menopause wellbeing champion – whose role is to let staff know about the employer’s menopause support policies, for example through posters and newsletters; to run workshops to raise awareness among staff; and to set up and manage a network for staff affected by the menopause – is also recommended. As is offering flexible working arrangements that allow women to work around their symptoms.

Governments and civil services step up – will others follow suit?

In the UK, public sector employers to have signed the Menopause at Work Pledge – as part of which they agree to talk openly, positively and respectively about the menopause and to actively support and inform employees affected by it, among other commitments – include the Scottish government, the Welsh government, the UK Civil Service, the Cabinet Office, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), the House of Commons, and the Government Internal Audit Agency.  

The civil service in the UK has also launched its own menopause policy, which aims to ensure managers are supportive of employees who are experiencing symptoms and that staff are aware of the flexibilities available to them, and includes practical advice on workplace adjustments and signposts to resources.

The UK government shares the example of the DWP, which is a member of the Cross-Government Menopause Executive Committee, has developed toolkits for employees and line managers, and has established a menopause network, menopause ambassadors, menopause cafés, and a resource hub of information.

Yet, otherwise, there isn’t much publicly available information about the specific workforce policies governments and departments have adopted to support staff.

One civil service to have made a formal announcement about its menopause workforce policies is the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) – a separate organisation from the home civil service that covers the rest of the UK. In March 2022, it said it would step up its support for women going through the menopause by introducing new policies and a programme to raise awareness and understanding.

Jayne Brady, the head of the NICS said the organisation had delivered a series of seminars on the menopause, one of which was attended by over 600 staff, and that it was “already seeing the benefit of increased awareness with departments establishing support groups for staff. This is only a first step for us as we want to continue to build on this progress through further guidance and the roll out of training to support the implementation of this policy”.

The Northern Ireland Executive’s then finance minister Conor Murphy (the finance department has responsibility for HR for the civil service), said that managers would be equipped to provide support and that he hoped the menopause policy would “create an environment where female employees feel confident to raise issues and ask for reasonable adjustments if necessary” and ensure they could “continue in employment and have their needs taken into account”.

When it comes to public policy, the NICS is also represented on the Menopause Taskforce, along with the UK government, the Scottish government and the Welsh government, which first met in early 2022 and whose role is to co-ordinate support policies for women across the UK’s four nations. The taskforce is made up of elected representatives, public servants and medical professionals.

While there are some press reports about other governments’ menopause related public policy – for example, the US Department of Veterans Affairs provides reproductive healthcare to those under its care, including menopause management – they are few and far between and details are scant.

If governments want to ensure that women can participate fully in employment and decision-making about service delivery and policies affecting fellow citizens, they must work to introduce effective menopause support policies for their staff – and for the population at large.

If you have experienced debilitating perimenopause or menopause symptoms while working for a civil or public service organisation, we’d like to hear your stories, and whether or not you felt you were adequately supported.

If you would like to share your experiences, please email me on [email protected]. We won’t publish anything without your permission, and if you wish to share your story with Global Government Forum readers, you can do so anonymously.

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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