Menopause and work – how can employers help?

A huge proportion of the workforce suffer from this little discussed condition

What is the menopause and what are the symptoms?

The menopause happens when your ovaries stop producing hormones and releasing eggs. When the ovaries stop working, there’s a drop in your blood level of this hormone. This change disrupts your periods and causes the symptoms associated with the menopause. Menopause normally happens from 44/45 onwards in women with the average age in the UK of 51. It can take several years for a woman to go through the menopause completely. What are the main symptoms?

Symptoms include:

  • Irregular periods
  • Hot flushes and night sweats
  • Difficulty sleeping and feeling tired during the day
  • Changes in your mood, e.g. feeling irritable, depressed or anxious
  • Vaginal symptoms, e.g. dryness and pain during sex
  • Loss of interest in sex (reduced libido) and/or urinary problems.

You may also have other symptoms, such as breast pain, headache, bloating and gaining weight.

These changes in hormone levels can have an effect on long-term health.  The most common changes affect the strength and density of bones because the female skeleton depends on oestrogen to maintain strength and resistance to fracture. The risk of heart disease and stroke increases for women after the menopause. Reduce the risk with regular exercise, stopping/reducing smoking and a healthy diet.

Contraception: Women under 50 are advised by most doctors to continue with contraception for two years after their last period and for one year if they are over 50.  It is therefore useful to keep a note of the date of your last period.

Do I need to see my doctor?

Some women breeze thorough the menopause but most experience some symptoms.  If your symptoms are causing problems, see your GP. There are a range of treatments available, hormone replacement therapy (HRT) being one of the most popular ones to ease side effects. If you wish to start HRT, you should discuss the benefits and risks with your GP.

Other ways you can help yourself include:

  • Eat regularly: skipping meals will make it difficult to achieve your nutritional requirements or maintain a healthy weight
  • Eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day and include low glycaemic carbohydrates at each meal, e.g. oats, pulses, grainy breads, pasta and other wholegrains. Eating low GL will help with weight control and mood swings
  • Eat phytoestrogen rich foods every day, e.g. soya milk, yoghurts and desserts, pulses like chickpeas or butter beans, soya and linseed bread
  • Include two to three daily servings of low fat dairy foods or calcium enriched soya alternatives to keep calcium intake high and maintain bone density
  • Eat oily fish at least once a week, and limit salt and saturated fat for a healthy heart
  • Take regular, moderate physical activity: walking, cycling, dancing are excellent. Aim for 30-45 minutes a day; this is vital for keeping weight under control
  • Keep a healthy body weight and shape. Aim to keep your waist measurement below 80 cm or 32 inches and try not to go above a dress size 16.

Around 3.5 million women aged over 50 years are currently employed in the UK - many of whom experience the varying symptoms of the menopause every day. This is a huge section of the workforce and, although all women experience the menopause differently, many of them could potentially be struggling with their symptoms. Because of the nature of the menopause, it’s often something that women may feel reluctant or embarrassed to discuss with their employer.

How can employers help?

Menopause can be a long-term issue and so finding a way to support the employee in their work is more beneficial than them prolonged periods of absence.

  • Employers should ensure that, as part of a wider occupational health awareness campaign, that issues such as the menopause are highlighted so all staff know that the employer has a positive attitude to the issue, and that it is not something that women should feel embarrassed about. Guidance on how to deal with the menopause should be freely available in the workplace
  • Women should be supplied with the relevant information and access to internal support networks should they not wish to speak to their manager, e.g. HR or their EAP
  • Line managers should be awareness-trained on how the menopause can affect working women and what adjustments may be necessary to support them. Awareness training/sessions should also be provided to employees to convey that the menopause can present difficulties for some women at work
  • Regular, informal conversations between manager and employee may enable discussion of changes in health, including issues relating to the menopause. However, employers need to recognise that some women may be reluctant to have discussions about their experience of the menopause with their manager and an occupational health professional can be very useful
  • Sickness absence procedures should be flexible enough to cater for menopause-related sickness absence. Menopausal women may experience bouts of feeling unwell at work, so managers should take a flexible and sympathetic approach to requests for a break or even a return home
  • Control of workplace temperature and ventilation should be reviewed to see how they might be adapted to meet the needs of individuals. This might include having a desktop fan in an office, or locating a workstation near an opening window or away from a heat source
  • Managers should consider flexible working hours or shift changes. If sleep is disturbed, later start times might be helpful
  • Access to cold drinking water in all work situations, including off-site venues, should be made available
  • Access to wash room facilities and toilets, including when travelling or working in temporary locations, should be made available
  • Additional considerations and adjustments may be required for specific occupations or locations.

Severe menopausal symptoms and their consequences may combine to have a substantial adverse effect on normal day to day activities – potentially meeting the legal definition of a disability under the Equality Act. Advice from occupational health professionals such as those at Duradiamond Healthcare can support HR policy.

Embedding the menopause in a wider health and wellbeing agenda may help encourage discussion of issues related to supporting longer working lives.

 

Read the Faculty of Occupational Medicine's guidance

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