[Podcast] Menopause in the Workplace

Posted in : HR Updates on 16 December 2020
Mairéad Regan
Clarendon Executive
Issues covered:

World Menopause Day was observed on the 18th October and in this latest Podcast with Clarendon Executive, Mairead Regan and Hugh McPoland discuss how the symptoms of menopause can impact on work performance and outline what employers can do to help support women who are undergoing this life change. 


Rolanda: Welcome to the "HR Bitesize Podcast" series in conversation with Clarendon Executive. Clarendon Executive works with companies across Northern Ireland to help maximise their leadership capabilities across all aspects of the employment lifecycle from executive search through to organisational and staff development. 

Clarendon's expertise spans the private, public, and third sectors. The firm focuses on identifying talented board and senior executive level across the management disciplines. This includes, for example, general management, commercial marketing, digital and operational effectiveness, and leadership roles, such as operations, finance, risk compliance, technology and human resources. 

Today, we are joined by Hugh McPoland and Mairéad Regan, associate consultants at Clarendon Executive. Hugh has a considerable track record in organisational change along with substantial knowledge and experience in assessing the leadership credentials of directors across the public sector. Mairéad specialises in post-hire executive development and senior executive performance and progression. Previously a Group HR director at UTV Media plc, Mairéad has more than 25 years' experience in human resources at a senior level. 

This podcast is a must-have listen for any HR manager or director, covering hot topics such as flexible working, menopause in the workplace, dealing with challenging behaviours, etc. Our easy-to-digest format makes these short, but informative podcasts perfect for listening to at leisure in the car or during your lunch break. 

Rolanda: A couple of recent discrimination cases have highlighted that employers are not well prepared in dealing with the impact of menopause in the workplace. In this podcast, we are going to discuss how symptoms of the menopause can affect work performance and what employers can do to mitigate against this impact. 

Mairéad: Well, I think, first of all, just to define that it's a biological stage in a woman's life and it's in every woman's life, as opposed to a particular group of women, and it's obviously when they stop menstruating and they reach the end of their natural reproductive life. It's a very individual experience, but the experience, in terms of the symptoms, and the severity, and the timescale involved, is huge. 

So, I think the CIPD came out with 34 symptoms that an individual can experience, everything ranging from . . . the physical symptoms are hot flashes and palpitations, night sweats, insomnia, fatigue, poor concentration, but also associated psychological symptoms, which can be depression, anxiety, panic attacks, mood swings, and a range of other things. 

There are also side effects to those in terms of bloating, and nausea, and leg cramps, and the experience of menopause can also exacerbate already existing health conditions, like ME or fibromyalgia. 

And we also have the additional area that women are working longer, and therefore, they are more likely to have other age-related symptoms. So, when you combine all of that together, this is a really, really challenging time in a woman's life. 

Now it is an individual experience, but what has tended to happen is . . . I think the CIPD refer to this as the last taboo in the working place, that people don't really talk about it, even though half the workforce are going to experience it. 

And because it's either not talked about because it's too embarrassing or because it's a topic of humour, what happens is that people are not getting the support that's required or the adjustments are not being put in place. So, women are trying to get on with work whilst experiencing all of this, so it is absolutely inevitably going to have an impact on performance. 

Hugh: I think that's absolutely right. I think the key thing around this for employers is that women over 50 is the fastest growing segment of the workforce, and that's an issue where, inevitably, women . . . and I'll come back later on to the idea of menopause and the fact that it may not be a single gender issue. 

Employers need to think about how that is going to impact upon their capacity, the availability of labour for the work that has to be done. And in many ways, I'm thinking, you know, we talked about, in the early days of equality, about flexible working for women of childbearing age, of bringing up their family, and then also care responsibilities, because women's traditional roles in society is about looking after the elderly as well, and now straight in the middle of all that is the menopause, so that is something where I think employers really need to be conscious. 

Women in that sort of 20 to 35 . . . please keep me right about these ages . . . is that childbearing and that child rearing age up until their mid-40s, 50, and then the menopause. Looking after women from a physical and health perspective is going to be a real priority for organisations in the future. 

Mairéad: The National Health Service, they have 77% of the workforce is women and around about 50% of those are in the age bracket of 45 to 64, so that is huge. 

Now, there are definitely more conversations happening. I mean, at the moment, you'd see on Lorraine and TV and breakfast shows or whatever, there are discussions. So, I think things are improving, but there still are barriers in terms of having those conversations. 

And whether the barriers are to do with embarrassment, that people don't want to talk about it. Maybe it's to do with your line manager is a male or your line manager is younger than you, or you feel that you might be ridiculed or that there aren't support processes in place. I think it's important that organisations look at those barriers and try to address them and make the menopause something that is talked about. 

I mean, there definitely are improvements in that I know some organisations now are running courses on handling the menopause in the workplace, but I think we have policies and procedures and practices for a whole range of things, as Hugh said, about parental support, etc., but not many organisations have policies that I'm aware of in terms of the menopause. 

But it is much, much more than having a policy. It's about the practices and the support that can be put in place. You know, I think part of it is an education of managers and staff, and it's not just about looking at, you know, the awareness, the symptoms, and the severity. 

It's also about, from an HR perspective, making people aware that this is an equality issue, as well.  I mean, we have all heard sexist and ageist comments about, "Oh, she's just having one of her moments", etc. But that's actually . . . that's an equality issue. 

So, there needs to be a very basic training in lots of different areas of equal opportunities, but there needs to be training in terms of what the menopause is, what the symptoms are, what support is available. But also dealing with that attitude thing, that it isn't something to be joked about and it is something that affects such a significant part of the workforce. 

Hugh: This is where I'm going to come in and say it's not a single gender issue. And it reminds me of when we started talking about this at a trade union meeting where it was raised about the need for a menopause policy or practice, and sometimes policies are the death of any action that's required, because some of this is actually really quite simple for employers to deal with. 

But when the trade unions were saying they needed a menopause policy, I did somewhat tongue in cheek, I'd have to say, say, "Well, it's not a single gender issue", to which there was a huge reaction about the male menopause and whether it existed or didn't exist, and how the trade unions weren't going to actually talk to us about dealing with men and their desire for fast cars or putting Lycra on and going off on their expensive cycles on the weekend. But it is actually a real issue, as well. 

Whilst it's not technically, I think if you look at the NHS websites, they would argue that the male menopause is actually called andropause. And it does have similar sort of symptoms where men who suffer from the male menopause do have issues with depression, loss of sex drive, lots of physical symptoms, as well, and emotional symptoms, some of which would be actually very similar to the impact it has on women. I'm not trying to denigrate or put down the impact of the female menopause, either. 

So, it does need to be actually a totality.  It's not just about the 50% of workforce that is female, but organisations who do this properly will look at the whole organisation.  

And I think your issue about the flippancy, I experienced the other side when I sort of somewhat tongue in cheek, I have to say, raised the issue about the male menopause. There's a flippancy about that, as well. And it is a serious health issue for the whole workforce, and it is time we start to think about that. 

And perhaps, it is about while it's integrated it into health and wellbeing strategies, it does need a little bit of specific attention, and some of it is actually quite simple. Because when you look at the guidance around this . . . and again, I've used these sorts of examples where men are really bad talking about women and their hot flashes. You know, that's a real impact on women, but it can actually be dealt with by potentially relocating women in offices, changing the office temperature, and just very simple solutions to some quite complex problems. 

But equally, on the male side, on the male menopause side, the same sorts of issues about moods, about depression, if we have good health and wellbeing policies around mental health issues, that helps as well. 

So, it's not solely a female issue, and it is perhaps something we need to think about  - the health of our workforce at a particular age slot. You know, it's that 45 to 55 age slot - are we clear that the health and wellbeing strategies we design for people who are really quite young and healthy, do they match the 45- to 50-year-old?  

And potentially a slightly different perspective may move away from some of that flippancy and about, I know I can hear my male colleagues going, 'Here we go again, that menopause and hot flashes', can we not do something differently?" 

So, let's treat it as a . . . generational is a wrong issue, but potentially the physical and mental health of people in that age group, 45 to 55, may be a better solution to it. 

Mairéad: And at 45 to 55, that's when individuals have a lot of experience to give to an organisation, and yet they're dealing with something that can directly impact on their performance.  So, really, the organisation needs to look at not only preventing the discrimination that may go with it but putting in place those adjustments from a health and safety and a wellbeing point of view.  As Hugh said, there are a number of very simple things that can be done and put in place without any big drama about it. 

So, it could be if a person is comfortable having that conversation, do you need fans in the office?  Do you need the temperature turned down?  Do you need windows opened?  You know, they're very practical, but if the conversation isn't happened, then those things won't be put in place. 

And I also think if it is talked about, there will be a greater sharing of support and referring people, signposting people to, you know, online support, homeopathic support. 

We're not saying that the organisation needs to actually deliver the support, but what the organisation needs to do is put the framework in place that the conversation is happening, that it's taken seriously, that the workplace adjustments that need to be put in place are put in place, but also that people feel that not just the physical signs, but the psychological support, and through, as you talked about, the wellness.  Is there employee counselling?  Is there support that can be provided, as well? 

I mean, some organisations are actually having, you know, champions or ambassadors for menopause in the workplace.  I think it's about ensuring that there is somewhere for an individual to go and raise that concern.  It might be HR.  It might be their line manager.  It could be whatever you want to call it, the champion, but the person needs to feel that they're not isolated or alone, because they're not alone.  They're definitely not alone, but if they're not talking about it, they'll feel alone. 

Hugh: Again, you know, I'm looking through this CIPD stuff and I just checked it a moment ago.  The menopause at work policy statement or top priorities for people professionals.  It is entirely single gender.  It does make reference to people who have transgendered.  It's really a good idea, but where is the thinking about the male menopause?  And I do worry that if we try to lock this down into a single issue, it won't be talked about.   

This is a total workforce issue, and the sooner we get into that, and having that conversation . . .not just ….in the last four or five years, we've put a lot of work into mental health, and I think most organisations are in a better place about having an open conversation about mental health issues.  Let's have that open conversation about the menopause, whether it's male or female, but let's have that conversation and let's create the appropriate plans and actions, which help people attend work as best they can and, when they're at work, be able to contribute to organisations without too much negative impact about what is happening to them and their physical bodies and their physical reactions to the aging process. 

Mairéad: You mentioned the unions.  I think the unions are very keen to put in place practices and support to get that communication.  And I do think some organisations are already looking at this, but I don't think it's seen as a priority by many organisations and I think it needs to be. 

Hugh: But I know from . . . it's a year and a half since I had that conversation with trade unions.  They were really locked into a single gender issue.  For me, I think this a total workforce issue, as opposed to a single gender issue. 

Mairéad: I accept that, but even if initially it's a single gender to get the thing off the . . . whatever it is to get . . . 

Hugh: Yes. 

Mairéad: .. . the ground, get the basics done, and then you can tweak, and amend, and move, and extend. But if we don't even have basics, if we're not having the conversation, then it's not going to move. 

Hugh: Absolutely. I think we need the conversation and we need the conversation quickly. 

Rolanda: What can organisations do to support line managers? Because ultimately, usually that first conversations going to take place, the line manager perhaps going to be the first person to notice a change in behaviour or a change in work performance.  And I mean, it might be difficult for them to proactively have that conversation rather than perhaps waiting for the person to come to them. You know, so what should organisations be doing to support managers to enable them to have those conversations? 

Hugh: I think that's really, in many ways, quite difficult to go back as a male manager with predominantly female direct reports. That would have been very embarrassing for both them and for me, if they would have came in, and talked to me about their menopausal symptoms. 

Mairéad: But if you had gone through a programme, Hugh, where the company or the organisation was saying, "This is another part of your . . . you need to look at individuals with a whole range of issues. This is only one of them".  And if the culture of the organisation and if the training is, "This is one of the things you need to talk . . . " you would have been, I imagine, much more comfortable raising it, because you're not almost picking on one individual.  It is just part of the whole suite of HR support that's available. 

Hugh: Yeah. That's the point I was going to make, because I think we need to get managers comfortable.  We've spent some time in the last five years getting them more comfortable than they were talking about mental health issues.  We need to get them comfortable talking about the physical issues, as well, particularly in that sort of age group where I think there is a discomfort, or maybe it's just me, a discomfort in terms of my generation of males.  They don't really to talk about that. We need to change that. 

And that is about awareness and giving people the confidence to have that conversation, and the skillset to have that conversation without sort of getting too embarrassed about it.  It's a conversation that needs to be had. 

Again, with some organisations, trade unions have a very important role to play in this because whilst it'd be uncomfortable for me, I know some women who just wouldn't talk to a man about this. And they may have,  potentially in partnership with the trade unions, give them that avenue to have that raised quite quickly or that champion process where you have people identified through occupational health. 

And I know there'll be people listening going, "That's fine for you because you were employing 1800 people.  You have an occupational health service. I'm employing 25 in my organisation. I don't have resources for that".  And that's I think where so many of the small, medium enterprises will be listening to this and going, "Well, that's all very well for you".  But again, it's about potentially building networks and collaborations of organisations to help them come together and deal with some of these problems. 

Mairéad: And funny, I was reading something about an employee passport where . . . because the conversation is a difficult one to initiate where individuals are asked to . . . it's a document where they actually mark on the document the symptoms that they're experiencing, the frequency, if there's a pattern, the severity of them. And it's a document that they can provide to their line manager and to HR, which will initiate the conversation. 

So, somebody doesn't have to go in cold and go, "I want to talk to you about the menopause. This is what I am experiencing", without them having through all of that, which opens up the conversation. And I thought that was a quite useful approach to take. 

Hugh: I think there's a lot of work to be done because it has been taboo, and as the CIPD said, it's the last taboo.  We just need to be brave and courageous to actually take some action, opening up the conversation, and doing the small things, first of all.  Like most things, baby steps first, and then make a move forward into big, big, bold arrangements within organisations. 

Mairéad: And I think, as well, we need to look at some of the current policies and procedures that are in place, so, for example, a performance management process or your disciplinary process or your attendance, and ensure that the menopause is mentioned and featured as part of that, and it's taken into consideration.  Because if it's not talked about, it shouldn't be reliant on just one person.  It should be part and parcel of the working practices and recognised as, "This is something that may impact on performance and this is something that we can support individuals with". 

Rolanda: So, I suppose in summary what we're really saying is that it is really important to have it as part of an overall health and wellbeing . . . 

Mairéad: Yes. 

Rolanda: …. but your health and wellbeing can't just be a generic thing.  It is important to look at your workforce in the entirety and the different age groups within your workforce and target them with particular health issues that could arise at particular age groups so that you're providing, I suppose, a much better-informed delivery of health and wellbeing to the entire workforce that both educates and provides a framework for support, and signposts, and for other services. 

Mairéad: Yeah, I think that's a really good summary. 

Rolanda: Thank you for listening to the "HR Bitesize Podcast" series in conversation with Clarendon Executive. Further podcasts in this series are available at legal-island.com within the Employment Law Hub. Thank you. 

Please note a helpful guide to Male Menopause is available here:

This article is correct at 16/12/2020

The information in this article is provided as part of Legal-Island's Employment Law Hub. We regret we are not able to respond to requests for specific legal or HR queries and recommend that professional advice is obtained before relying on information supplied anywhere within this article.

Mairéad Regan
Clarendon Executive

The main content of this article was provided by Mairéad Regan. Contact telephone number is +44 (0) 28 9072 5750 or email Mairead.Regan@clarendonexecutive.com

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