Simone Cheng is a senior policy adviser at Acas. She is part of a team responsible for informing the future strategic direction of Acas and influencing the wider debate on the value of employment relations.
From celebrity campaigners to government and parliament, recent years have seen a nationwide push for businesses to play their part in creating 'menopause-confident' workplaces. And many have paid attention: Acas's latest poll finds that nearly half (46%) of employers in England, Scotland and Wales say they feel 'very well equipped' or 'fairly well equipped' to support women going through the menopause at their workplace.
But that isn't the whole picture. In the Acas survey, 1 in 3 (33%) employers report feeling 'not that well equipped' or 'not at all equipped'. This adds to an increasing number of surveys which point to insufficient workplace support.
The common denominator? Knowledge. Indeed, for what is a natural part of life, a significant amount of taboo continues to swirl around the subject. Breaking this pervasive culture of silence requires efforts to continually educate and inform, and the workplace is core to advancing the dialogue.
Debunking the myths
Stubborn misconceptions mean that the menopause and its impact are still misunderstood. Often it can be reduced to the single symptom of hot flushes, despite this being just 1 of as many as 34 common symptoms like brain fog, headaches, palpitations and mood changes.
Focusing on the theme of cognition and mood this World Menopause Day, research published in the Social Science and Medicine Journal shows that menopause-related psychological problems – namely anxiety and depression, tearfulness, panic, forgetfulness, palpitations and irritability – have the largest effects on employment rates.
Myths that the menopause affects only those in their 40s and 50s are also common. In reality, some people will experience early or medically-triggered menopause at a much younger age. The Women and Equalities Committee’s report on menopause and the workplace further references the 'significant social and cultural stigma' faced by groups such as LGBT+ people, and young and ethnic minority women – areas where big evidence gaps remain.
Addressing workplace challenges
A lack of education can naturally perpetuate conflict at work. Various analyses show that menopause-related employment tribunal claims are on the rise.
In calls to Acas's helpline and in conciliation cases relating to the menopause, employees commonly voice concerns around unfair treatment, discrimination and harassment. Employees often cite disparaging comments made by managers and colleagues, a failure to make reasonable adjustments or unfair dismissal.
Businesses are under increasing scrutiny. But conflict can be used as a force for positive, meaningful change. There are 3 critical aspects to menopause education: recognising the business role, establishing a safe environment to talk, and creating proactive and accessible guidelines.
Recognising the business role
The menopause can affect any of your workforce at any stage, whether they are directly experiencing the symptoms themselves or supporting someone else going through it.
It concerns both individual and organisational wellbeing. The confidence to bring our 'authentic selves' to work can improve performance, productivity and retention.
Establishing a safe environment to talk
Acas's survey finds that over a third (37%) of employers are either 'not very confident' or 'not at all confident' that managers have the necessary skills to support staff experiencing menopause symptoms, with a further 17% answering 'don't know'.
Disclosure of the menopause can be incredibly complex, often requiring the sharing of other personal information, for example, prior health or fertility issues or existing health conditions which the menopause has worsened. Discussions should be guided by the individual and respectful of their needs, with focus on the support available.
Creating proactive and accessible guidelines
Having a written, regularly-reviewed framework helps establish clear guidelines in a single space.
This should include the organisation's commitment to support its diverse workforce and prevent discrimination, expectations for both employers and employees, information around training, and signposts to reliable and accurate resources.
Progressing the dialogue
While we are beginning to see the menopause and the role of the workplace seep into our regular conversations, notable gaps in knowledge and practice continue to stand in the way of progress.
A responsible business is one which advances fairness and inclusion, and dedicates time and space to educate itself and its workforce about the menopause. More broadly speaking, raising awareness of all aspects of health and wellbeing is a big part of the journey. Let's make sure we don't lose the momentum.