It is now over 2 years since I wrote a blog on the menopause and everywhere we look now, there seems to be something about this particular state of life. On the one hand, it is great that the menopause is getting the profile it needs and that there is less of a taboo about discussing it. However,the danger is that when there is pressure to talk about a particular topic,that one almost passes over it without picking out the important things for one’sown environment. Our interest, of course, is to be able to advise both individuals and employers about the effects in the workplace.
I think what makes the subject more tricky is that there is too much detail in many articles about bodily changes and detailed symptoms. In the 80s and 90s, when the Government was doing a huge education drive on Aids and HIV, there was a huge groundswell of feeling that there was over-publication which led, in the end, to complacency. So, let us change the question and say,‘what do employers and employees need to do about this unavoidable phase of life for female employees and employers?’.
Let’s start with a few facts. The text books say that the menopause lasts for about 4 years, but many women will say that it affects their way of thinking for getting on for 10 years. It is not just a physical change and it is this that we need to recognise. There is no doubt that there is a mental effect as well as a physical effect. Mood changes take place; there is some memory loss, to the extent that women think they are really losing the plot and experience anxiety about personal limits and therefore become less resilient. The most important thing is that one is not regarded as a ‘freak’and there are many treatments and chat rooms to compare notes.
You can take your pick of acupuncture, increased exercise boosting endorphins, taking HRT, black cohosh, red clover etc, but I will focus particularly on the mental aspects which can be alarming and have huge consequences in the workplace.
One of the biggest problems in the menopause is insomnia,and the more you suffer from it, the more unable you are to deal with it. It makes the responsibilities of life much greater and the daytime fatigue makes it impossible to be the sharp, decisive person you used to be. There are over-the-counter aids, there are prescribed aids and anti-depressants which take the edge off anxiety and more heavyweight medication, such as HRT, about which there are also many myths and concerns. A conversation with an experienced doctor is going to be one possible route. Nobody can tell you whether it is going to be vitamin D or flax seed that is going to help you. Some of this is experimentation. Some women don’t even get hot flushes and there are some lucky women who go through the menopause almost overnight, who think they have got off scot-free until they find they have osteoporotic symptoms. It is important to dispel myths and gather data before making a decision on what to do to deal with the physical symptoms.
Dealing with a lack of sleep is very important in terms of being able to perform at work and there are many useful publications as well as remedies. I would recommend Matthew Walker’s ‘Why We Sleep’ and, having finished that, I would then read Darian Leader’s recent book on ‘Why Can’t We Sleep’.With some women, the menopause seems to change the whole personality, but often, it tends to exaggerate stress symptoms until they become unbearable.
Our issue in Britain is not that we lack information, but it’s that there is so much we find it difficult to sift through and make decisions from knowing what is best. In the workplace, some of the most difficult challenges are those involving memory issues and maybe as a result of, or additional to,sleeplessness. Women complain of having difficulty recalling a word, a name and not being able to drag it out of the recesses of their mind. They can’t remember where they put anything and on the one hand it may just be an aging process, but on the other, people begin thinking it could be the start of Alzheimers. However, this memory loss does fade, and the ability to think generally returns to normal.
It is an obvious thing to say that the more sleep you get,the better, but finding a way to take naps during the day and for employers to recognise the need for such a place so that cat-napping, can take place is a huge boost to performance. Reducing stress in other parts of your life can take pressure off your own hard drive,leaving you more space to deal with the inevitable difficulties of the menopause.
Planning before the onset of the menopause, really does help and yet, there are no warning signs before you have to deal with the symptoms,so a long-term plan may be worth considering. If losing weight is something you want to do, then it is a whole lot easier before you hit that phase of your life.
Our first recommendation would be that employers and employees work together to find ways to allow affected employees to cat-nap so that they can perform better. We are interested mainly in output, rather than input and gone are the days of checking in and checking out. What matters is not the time invested but that the time invested allows the employee to perform to the best of their ability and give the maximum output desired.
The whole area of the menopause can be raised as a topic for workshops on inclusion and diversity, internal helplines and an external HR helpline that includes problems with the menopause can be set up. We should also think of better education of those ages within the working population who have not yet had to deal with this problem, either as an employer or as an employee.
In discussing policies with employees, one also has to recognise that the menopause is a very personal matter and yet has a public impact. There are some very good reasons for addressing the symptoms of the menopause. We see this emerging in grievances about the fall-out of an individual’s short temper that could be put down to the menopause. We find that an individual’s performance diminishes and that is often put down to the menopause.
One important issue is to be absolutely up to speed with employment law. Somebody with severe symptoms may be being treated unfairly at work and this area could possibly fall into the disability arena of the Equality Act. There has been a recent case in the Scottish Courts where an employee’s claim of disability discrimination came from her experience of the menopause.
It is important to consider carrying out risk assessments and making reasonable adjustments regarding the law around age and gender discrimination.
One difficulty arises out of the fact that an employee will need to raise the topic herself, rather than the employer which, in itself, could trigger a discrimination claim.
Many employers have introduced a menopause policy and were commend that this is a way forward. It is good to pre-empt this as many women do not wish to come out of the closet with the difficulties they are facing and then drive such a policy themselves.
There is also the issue of the fine line we tread in raising an issue that affects one group of staff. Raising the profile of the menopause is therefore important, but not to the extent that other groups of staff feel devalued.
So, what shall we do?
1) Engender a culture where women feel supported and able to initiate a conversation which, in turn, will lead to practical support.
2) Consideration should be given to the ability to provide cat-nap breaks and raise understanding of line-managers and re-draft policies.
3) Include menopause as part of equality and diversity training and label the menopause as such, rather than causing it to be a taboo.
4) When considering performance and performance management, consider negative effects of the menopause and whether performance mechanisms are fair.
5) Recognise that there is a mental aspect as well as a physical aspect to the menopause and when it might be appropriate to involve occupational health or other medical intervention.
6) Review the absence policy so that menopause does not become detrimental in taking time off, thus engendering the use of the absence policy inappropriately and possibly discriminatively.
7) Other matters could be physical adjustments in the workplace such as improved ventilation, improved bathroom facilities, increased‘daylight experience’ and noise reduction which has been demonstrated to reduce tiredness.
There is a fine balance we must tread so that we don’t go for overkill but so that we do increase awareness; we don’t want to find ourselves discriminating positively or negatively. As ever, these subjects require sensitivity and equality is a fine line.
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