Rachel McClean, Conservative MP for Redditch, has been hitting the headlines recently to highlight the plight of many women: the menopause and the effect it has on women in their daily life.

Ms McClean and fellow MP Carolyn Harris have become ambassadors for the cause to increase understanding of what is still a taboo subject. Ms McClean said simply ‘I became interested in this topic as it started affecting me’. She is on a self-proclaimed mission to bring this issue higher up the Government’s agenda having found that there were just 24 mentions of it in the last three years only in passing, and not even as a subject for a debate.

What is the menopause?

The menopause is a natural part of ageing that usually occurs between 45 and 55 years of age, as a woman’s oestrogen levels decline. In the UK, the average age for a woman to reach the menopause is 51. Most women will experience menopausal symptoms, some of which can be quite severe and have a significant impact on everyday activities and working life.

A symptom of the menopause may well be protected under the Equality Act as a disability if it is a physical or mental impairment that has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long term’ negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities. ‘Substantial’ means more than minor or trivial, and ‘long term’ means lasting or likely to last 12 months or more.

Common symptoms include:

The symptoms can begin months or even years before periods stop and last around four years after the last period, although some women experience them for much longer.

Common mistakes

Ms McClean recalls migranes were a ‘blight’ on her life and intensified when she hit her fifties. As she didn’t suffer from the common menopausal symptoms she assumed that the migraines were being exacerbated by her new stressful position as an MP and the consequent exhaustion.

The MP’s aim to lobby for menopause awareness stems from discovering the true extent of the limitations that women face due to a lack of understanding of the condition. Successful women, often at the peak of their careers, have to leave their jobs because they suffer from side effects of menopause which are not ‘acknowledged’ or ‘accommodated’ by employers making reasonable adjustments in the workplace.

There is a distinct lack of understanding and empathy across workplaces and generally in society of this issue. Despite the fact that there are more than 3.5 million women over the age of 50 currently working in Britain, there is scant HR guidance in how to support employees through this significant life stage.

Ms McClean said ‘I believe it’s time that this natural stage of life, that can mark the flowering of a productive and happy third age, should be better understood by policy makers.’

What employers can do to help

A handful of employers are already ahead of the game. They are signing up to be menopause-friendly, with bespoke policies and procedures to accommodate this challenging time in a woman’s life.

For many organisations, existing policies which include (short / long term) sickness absence procedures could already be sufficiently flexible to take account of menopause-related conditions.

Recommendations: Employment policies and procedures

We recommend that employers provide special training to raise awareness of the issue and get the message across to staff. Creating a defined policy can reassure employees, keeping them happy and productive.

Additional bespoke provisions can be helpful, such as employees being able to report any gender-specific sickness to a manager of the same gender if this makes them feel more comfortable.

We encourage managers to recognise and accommodate the changing needs of staff, and consider suitable alternatives such as flexible working practices or referral to support services. Employers could even allow paid ‘menopausal leave’ for a prescribed period which they can take at a time they feel most appropriate.

The National Union of Teachers (NUT), commission a report which revealed that many female teachers feared that even mentioning the ‘m’ word may lay them open to potential redundancy. Creating bespoke policies will alleviate such concerns.

Having appropriate policies could reduce women’s worries about being discriminated against because of the menopause. Women themselves don’t want to ask for special treatment and they may well be embarrassed.

Leading by example

The West Midlands police provide tailored support for women, primarily helping them to build their confidence and stay in the workplace with access to the support they need.

Marks & Spencer (M&S) is one of the few businesses that acknowledged due to the high number of female employees there was a need to have more appropriate support in place for staff who are going through the menopause.

The support on offer includes providing specific information for line managers via the M&S wellbeing portal and referral to a specialist team within occupational health (OH), who will help to secure any appropriate adjustments required. M&S has robust policies already in place which govern time away from work, which it suggests support menopausal employees where needed.

Supermarket giant Asda has also confirmed that it is alive to the issues surrounding menopause and fully supports adjustments to accommodate its large percentage of female staff via existing policies and procedures.

The future is bright

There is a huge upside for organisations who do implement bespoke menopause policies. In our view they will experience a productive, happy and age-diverse workforce, which will in turn improve their business’ performance.