All women have a unique health issue that is largely ignored in the workplace: the menopause. It’s time we treated it with all the seriousness and care it deserves. And we can start by breaking the silence and ending the stigma.
It was a few years back now that I remember telling a young colleague at work about some of the problems I was experiencing with the menopause. She appeared to be listening in a vaguely tolerant way until I came to the bit about hot flushes. She sniggered, as if there was something rather absurd and ridiculous about it.
As someone whose job it is to help reframe how society views older people, I’m continually discovering that many still don't understand the menopause. The media hardly helps. When Angelina Jolie admitted she was in forced menopause, following surgery to remove her ovaries and fallopian tube, some people congratulated her for "owning up", as if it was something to confess. And understanding wasn’t helped when Tracey Emin described her experience of the menopause as a nightmare, akin to the onset of death.
Is that surprising? Women are constantly bombarded by the media with images of fabulous looking celebrity women in their late 40s and early 50s, adorned with skimpy bikinis. What is this meant to achieve? In reality, it only reinforces the feelings women have as they approach middle age – less self-confidence and more insecurity.
Partly because of all this pressure, women are still finding the transition to middle-age daunting. Fearing age-based discrimination, they find themselves silently suffering symptoms such as hot flushes, worried about being stereotyped as "getting old".
A survey from 2009 into self-reported workplace illness found that 70 per cent of women surveyed had not disclosed the fact that they were experiencing symptoms relating to the menopause to their manager. When asked what adjustments could be made at work, 75 per cent per cent said it would help if their manager was more aware of the issue and 63 per cent said that flexible working would help them to cope with symptoms.
With this in mind, employers need to provide more for menopausal members of staff. They should consider info packs, mentoring schemes, and lunchtime support, as well as more flexible working hours, job sharing, and opportunities to work from home. Employers could also provide opportunities for self-help, via healthy lifestyles, balanced diets, relaxation techniques and mindfulness.
The UK faces a talent gap of millions, and in a recent report, the charity Business in the Community found that over 50s were the key to filling it. "Older workers are vital for the future of the economy," they reported. "And the need to develop a long-term strategic approach to recruiting and retaining older workers is crucially important for businesses."
So instead of ignoring menopausal women, we've got to start helping them achieve their best. Not only is it right on principle, but it's also something we can't afford not to do if we want a stronger and fairer economy.
Jilly Forster is Chair of Forster CommunicationsReuse content