Menopause and mental health - normalise the conversation
Posted on 18th October 2021 at 07:00
If you look up menopause it is termed as ‘a natural process of aging’. The symptoms of the menopause or perimenopause feel anything but natural! Hot flushes, night sweats, difficulty sleeping; the NHS list at least 15 common symptoms. On a recent Personnel Today webinar, the journalist and news presenter Louise Minchin, described how she herself experienced numerous symptoms of the menopause and having researched different symptoms, they are so wide ranging that the list has to be way more than 15.
And this process of ‘aging’ can take years, decades even. All whilst we are supposed to hold down a job, perform well in our job, be carers for our children, family, pets, etc; the list is endless! The Mental Health Foundation states the average age of menopause is 51 but it may happen sooner or later than this. Around one in 100 women experience the menopause before they reach 40. For many it can happen before this as women experience symptoms of the perimenopause but are misdiagnosed e.g. with depression.
So as if the many symptoms of the menopause itself wasn’t bad enough, the journey into menopause can also have a significant impact on a woman’s mental health.
There is no specific medical treatment necessary however there are treatments aimed at reducing the signs or symptoms of the menopause and perimenopause and one of these are antidepressants. However, is this the right treatment when there are so many other factors to consider? So many women describe not feeling themselves, flat and joyless, and the effects of the menopause can cause emotional strain and if you have a pre-existing mental health problem, it’s possible that the effects of menopause could cause a relapse or change to your mental health. However, if the low mood or anxiety is a direct result of the menopause then is it not better to treat the menopause itself?
NHS prescriptions for HRT are already free in Scotland and Wales and the therapy is used to top up levels of women’s’ oestrogen and progesterone hormones during menopause. If the Menopause Private Members Bill is passed, the proposed law would make HRT free on prescription for women in England too.
Celebrities such as Louise Minchin and Davina McCall who is a campaigning ambassador for The Menopause Charity, are trying to mainstream the conversation. The reason for me writing this is not only because today is World Menopause Day but because normalising the conversation and supporting employees who are experiencing menopausal symptoms, including poor mental health, will help your business in the goal to advance gender equality in the workplace.
All of us will know someone going through menopause; a wife, mother, daughter, sister, aunt, friend but what we won’t know is that they are going through menopause because there is such stigma around the subject and what it means for a woman especially for those in the workplace. I’ve spoken to so many women who don’t want ‘that’ discussion with their line manager or are too wary to speak about it at work in case it has a detrimental impact on their career.
What this article, World Menopause Day, ASOS, TESCO and celebrity documentaries such as Davina’s are hoping to do is open the conversation. Everyone should have an opportunity to reach their full potential in the workplace and should not be defined by their gender. What you as an employer can do is support employees who are experiencing menopausal symptoms.
In my experience, if as an employer you can focus on these steps, together we can work to empower change and advance gender equality in the workplace.
To help you on this journey, here is some advice from me.
1. Start talking - I don’t mean go and ask the women in your team if the reason why they’re irritable/emotional/tired/different (insert preferred descriptive word) is because they have started the menopause/perimenopause! What I mean is provide open and informal opportunities to discuss their health and wellbeing. Meaningful discussions that normalise the conversation around menopause and the impact it could be having. Listen, ask questions, check in. We started doing this for mental health now we need to do it for menopause.
2. Equip employees with knowledge - train line managers and employees on the menopause, the symptoms, and the effect it can have on individuals in the workplace. Employers should ensure that managers understand how menopausal symptoms can impact an employee’s wellbeing, performance and attendance. This will enable managers to have sensitive and supportive conversations as well as reduce the risk of discrimination claims. In addition to this I’m sure lots of HR professionals like me will have been subject to conversations about air conditioning or heating which if not handled appropriately at the time by managers could lead to conflict within your teams in the workplace. (Yes, this has really happened!). It’s time to change the culture.
3. Implement a Menopause Policy – implementing a menopause policy or incorporating menopause into another policy is good practice. Informative and clear policies and procedures benefit both the employer and employee. Such a policy can help raise awareness and understanding of menopausal symptoms and encourage employees to discuss their own symptoms. It can also detail all the information needed to show how you as an employer will support that employee during the menopause and provide clarification for managers to signpost where they can get further support from. No one expects managers to be subject experts so reach out to those with the right knowledge to support.
4. Unsupportive action and indirect discrimination - we have read about the symptoms of the menopause and the effect they can have on women. This of course will have an impact in the workplace as most women will go through the menopause during their working career. I’m sure no decent employer would dismiss a woman because of the menopause but they need to be mindful around discussions because of the symptoms of the menopause. I’ve had conversations with managers about performance, attendance and behaviour all related to the menopause. What I would always advise is; what discussions have you had? What support have you offered? What external medical advice has been given if appropriate? What plans for review have you made? Employers should avoid making assumptions about the effect of the menopause on an employee and menopausal symptoms will amount to a disability where they have a substantial and long-term adverse effect on the ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. There should also be caution against indirectly discriminating against an employee on grounds of sex and age. Employers have a duty of care to treat all employees fairly.
5. Look at your strategy – this should really be the first thing you do. Have you thought about the demographics within your workforce? Are the largest group of women between the age of 40-51? Support for the menopause should be a key part of your strategy. If not, how are you going to continue to attract, retain and develop female talent?
Please feel free to contact me if you would like to discuss this article or any others further. I would love to hear from you!
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