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The “M” Word

Written by Victoria Thomson, HR Dept Haywards Heath & Crowborough

I found a chicken breast in my handbag…”

Is this the opening line to a late-night comedy show? Or a confession to a priest from someone with kleptomania?! Although it might be funny, and sometimes it’s good to bring humour into the subject being discussed, this is a serious topic that employers are being increasingly made aware of. This could, in fact, be the conversation you are about to have with one of your female employees. The question you are asking is: why is she telling me this? Answer: because she’s going through the menopause.

So, as an employer, how can you address this topic? What are your obligations and responsibilities?

Although it’s now absolutely standard to have a maternity policy that includes pregnancy and breast feeding in it and no-one turns a hair, the menopause is still a taboo subject in the workplace, spoken about in hushed tones – if at all! Pregnancy and maternity leave is treated as a celebration, but the female body going through a different type of change – which is no less obvious or impactful on women’s lives – is given the silent treatment. Which makes it much harder for you, as the employer, as well as your staff to raise with you. So, it’s time to get the conversation started!

Here’s a question for you. Which scenario would you prefer?

a)      A long serving, productive and valued member of staff comes to you and explains that she has menopausal symptoms that include feelings of anxiety and sleeplessness and she would like to talk options through with you, as per the policy. The discussion leads to you agreeing a slightly later start and finish time to her working day, and results in keeping her as a high performing, experienced, well respected employee on your staff?

b)     Or to ignore the situation because, let’s face it, it’s a bit embarrassing to talk to someone about all those “women’s issues” never mind have an actual policy about it! So, you ignore it, hope she’ll “get over it soon” as you become increasingly annoyed by her mood swings, despair at her darting out of meetings when a hot flush drenches her clothes through as well as ignoring that she’s suffering from a lack of self confidence which affects her work until she eventually breaks down in a disciplinary meeting sobbing that she didn’t want to appear weak by talking to you?

I am advising my clients to go with option a (surprise, surprise!)   After all, this affects 50% of the population. Your mother, sister, partner, wife and friends will all go through this at some point in their lives. Simply put, be you male or female, you can’t and shouldn’t ignore it!

(Added to which, if you go with option b it’s now become much more of an embarrassing situation for you both. And you have the added aggro of having to go through a lengthy, time consuming disciplinary process. Which could open up your business to the risk of falling foul of ageism and sexism….. Option a, trust me!)

So, how do you avoid these pitfalls? Do you have to have yet another policy? Well, that could be a good route to go as it can be included in your handbook along with all your other policies. And demonstrates your awareness as an employer of the importance of support for your female employees, in exactly the same way that a maternity policy does.

Does it have be complicated? NO! In fact, a lot of it is just common sense but will go a long way to making those employees going through the change feel supported and takes the embarrassment away.

You can make sure that her desk is near an opening window so that she can regulate the hot flushes and ensuing sweats without having to draw attention to herself. If your office is air conditioned without opening windows, invest in a small desk fan for her.  You should make sure that you have a good supply of cold water. Or even a showering facility and changing area in case she needs to have a cold shower and change her clothes (believe me, it can be that severe!)

The menopause is recognised by doctors as a long-term health condition – typically between three to five years. It can result in emotional changes as well as physical ones so a recognition of this and a referral by you to an occupational health provider to seek advice on additional support and how to make “reasonable adjustments” is a good option for you to consider. Realistically, it won’t cost you a lot to grant her time off for a doctor’s appointment for HRT treatment or for a counselling session to deal with the mood swings and anxiety. Or, possibly an adjustment to her work hours if she just wants to maintain some dignity by avoiding the rush hour commute and the embarrassment of a hot flush while crammed onto a train with no way of getting to a window or grappling in her bag for water.

The alternative is to have her frequently taking time off sick, turning up late or resigning and leaving the business altogether (which will cost you time and money to find a replacement. Not to mention the frustration of watching all that experience walk out of the door) When all you had to do was make a few minor adjustments… Worth thinking about, isn’t it?

Large organisations have the luxury of setting up an in-house support group. However, as a small business, whilst you might not be able to do that, you can still offer an Employee Assistance Programme for all of your staff which will give anyone suffering menopausal symptoms an extra line of support to go to for telephone advice and counselling. Or direct them to a blog or an online forum for additional support.

A client I spoke to about this recently has gone one step further and offers exercise classes and yoga once a week in the boardroom where there’s room for people to stretch out. Calming exercises in yoga and (buzz word alert!) mindfulness can be used as a contributory element to dealing with menopausal symptoms. And also go a way to demonstrate that you are an employer who is both aware and supportive! Tick! Now that doesn’t sound too difficult, does it?! You can join in and practice your Lotus position too!

You can very quickly be proactive; pop some posters up in your office (and don’t just put them up in the ladies’ loo! It helps to make everyone aware and stop this being a taboo subject) and promote the EAP, the yoga and mindfulness sessions and the option to talk to a manager of the same sex about gender specific sickness or problems.

So, in a world where we have an ageing and a growing female work force, take the plunge (into cold water!) and be ahead of the competition. In a recent BBC survey, 70% of respondents said that they did not tell their employer they were experiencing symptoms. You can easily be one of the 30% by having an open and honest approach to the menopause. Let’s get the conversation started!

If you need help setting up an Employee Assistance Programme or just want to know more about one, don’t hesitate to give us a call for that and any other advice on this topic on 01444 688 988.

If you would like to read more about this subject, or even have additional support options to offer to your employees, here are some additional sources for you:

NHS: www.nhs.uk/conditions/menopause

Menopause Matters: https://www.menopausematters.co.uk/

British Menopause Society: http://thebms.org.uk

WebMD: https://www.webmd.boots.com/searchresults/results?query=menopause

Woman’s Hour Radio 4: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p05tpw79

P.S. In case you were wondering, she found her car keys in the freezer!