Women are being forced out of work due to the menopause - and it’s time corporates clued up

·7-min read
'I often say menopause isn’t a disability but it is debilitating' - Debbi Clark
'I often say menopause isn’t a disability but it is debilitating' - Debbi Clark

I experienced 32 of the 34 menopause symptoms. I suffered from crippling anxiety, foggy brain, night sweats and I couldn’t leave my house for three months. Luckily for me, I didn’t work for a large corporation or have to report daily to a boss.

Menopause symptoms can last from 12 months to eight years and tend to be severe for 25 per cent of women. The main symptoms include anxiety, hot flashes, migraines, brain fog, depression, lack of self confidence and broken sleep. This is a nightmare for working women and many are afraid to talk about the way they are feeling or ask for help in the workplace for a number of reasons… mainly fear of getting sidelined.

It’s thought that a lack of support may be hindering gender equality and blocking women from taking on senior roles. As we peak in our careers (generally aged 45-55), we also experience the menopause. In fact, a 2019 survey conducted by BUPA and the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD) found that three in five menopausal women were negatively affected at work and that there are almost 900,000 women in the UK who have left their jobs because of menopausal symptoms.

Another survey, commissioned by Vodafone, spoke to over 5,000 people from Spain, Italy, Germany, the UK and South Africa about their experiences of menopause at work. Thirty-three per cent said they have hidden symptoms at work and half said they felt there’s still a stigma attached to it and to opening up about symptoms. As a result of this, 43 per cent of UK respondents said they’d feel too embarrassed to ask for support at work.

I’m a very open person and it was easy for me to talk about my menopause symptoms. Six years ago I had a furniture company. I sat with my family and my work partners and told them how I was feeling and openly asked them for support. Luckily for me they were incredibly understanding, but I appreciate it’s not this way for everyone.

Several years ago, I did a menopause talk for the BBC. As I walked into the main room I was shocked by the open-plan layout and the bright lights. There was literally nowhere to hide. I asked a few women what they did when a hot flush struck or they felt overwhelmed. They told me they hid in the toilet or the cafeteria. Following that talk I spoke to the HR department and suggested the women had access to a room with a door where they could sit for five minutes if they needed a break or to get away from it all when struggling with a hot flush.

My mum was a PA many years ago and was too shy to say anything to her boss about her menopause symptoms in case he thought she was over the hill. She worried that her boss would find a younger preplacement. Incredibly, women still share these feelings and fears today.

Another time, I was speaking at a big corporation and one woman who was a chairperson told me about her crippling fear of presenting to a room full of people and forgetting colleagues names due to brain fog or the sheer fear of having a hot flush. There isn’t much you can do when a hot flush strikes apart from opening a window or turning up the air-con.

I’ve learnt over the years it’s best to be open and honest about how I’m feeling. I used to dread public speaking and events. I’d start my talks by telling the audience that I struggled with brain fog and anxiety and asked people to be patient with me. As I looked across the room I would see women smile and I knew that resonated with them.

It’s not always easy saying this to your boss. Legally they can’t discriminate against you but many women fear that they will be replaced or made to feel ashamed.

Frustratingly we are not in a position where it’s mandatory for workplaces to have a menopause policy. It’s important to know however, that you can access a free menopause policy from The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS), which is available to download. If you speak to your HR department and there isn't a menopause policy in place you can request they follow the ACAS one. Don’t be afraid to ask for this.

There are also a variety of organisations who consult on policy and provide support for those impacted as well as those around them.Lesley Salem, founder of one such organisation, Over The Bloody Moon, also advises setting up ‘employee resource groups’ and says it's a great way of harnessing collective power, cultivating those important conversations and driving internal cultural change and removing unconscious bias around menopause.

Women message me daily on social media to ask for advice. Many have taken holiday leave instead of sick leave because of the menopause. Sometimes the thought of getting on a busy Tube at 8am is just too much. The dread sets in, followed by extreme anxiety and it’s easier to book a few days off then go to the office – and many are afraid to call in sick.

HR should be responsible for looking after all employees. If you are pregnant, it’s different. People make you a cup of tea and offer you a ginger biscuit. If you break your leg people help you – you wouldn't be expected to take the stairs. Until we openly speak about the menopause and how we are feeling, it’s going to take a long time before we see real changes.

I often say menopause isn’t a disability but it is debilitating.

The first thing I ask when doing a workplace talk is ‘Do you have a menopause policy in place?’ There are policies in place to safeguard against discrimination and protect employees yet many women feel alone when it comes to the this issue. In my experience the head of HR is usually a man. Once at a talk when a line manager asked me, ‘How do I deal with this in my department?’ the head of HR stood up and said, ‘Just ask which women are going through the menopause’. I almost fell off my chair! It's not about women having to put their hand up to declare they are experiencing the menopause! Especially not to a line manager who is most likely half their age.

This is why I’ve teamed up with the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, King’s Lynn, as an ambassador. The team has committed to a new policy outlining menopause support for its staff as part of its staff wellness programme.

The hospital is the first NHS Trust in the country to state that it is a menopause-friendly employer in its job adverts, with the trust outlining its support for employees at the point of application, and having a clear package of support in place. This includes training and awareness for managers and staff, a network of support through volunteer ‘menopause champions’, and a regular menopause clinic to bring support directly to staff going through the menopause and their families.

For me this is revolutionary and so important. 77.6 per cent of Queen Elizabeth Hospital’s workforce is female, and 12 per cent of those are within the 45-50 age bracket. The Trust’s ambition is to become a national leader in the NHS for menopause awareness and hopes to share its approach to inspire other organisations to follow.

I’m working closely with Caroline Shaw CBE, chief executive at Queen Elizabeth Hospital who is passionate about making the hospital an even better place to work for women. Our nurses do so much for us. It’s hard to imagine what they go through on a daily basis and that’s before adding menopause and the 34 symptoms into the mix. If only all employers and NHS Trusts would do the same it would make a monumental difference to how women feel in the workplace. I’m confident that it would reduce sick days and generally improve the way menopausal women feel about going to work.

Read more from Meg Mathews:

Meg Mathews: The 10 tips that have helped me through my menopausal years

Meg Mathews: How to cope with hot flushes and night sweats in summer

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