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The Expensive Business of Menopause in the Workplace

Menopause is causing a work deficit in the UK, with thousands of women reducing working hours or leaving their jobs altogether. The issue has become so dire that Parliament, the NHS, and the British Medical Society are jointly and individually spearheading efforts to address what has become an economic issue through messaging campaigns, GP education, and employer policies. 

Thus far, these strategies have yielded minimal returns; at last count, the overall lack of menopause awareness and support has already drained the UK economy of almost £10 billion.

The statistics change depending on the source, but they all paint a discouraging picture.

Findings from the first report of the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee underscored that not only is the number of women who'll experience menopause whilst employed increasing, but women are ageing into the workforce and staying longer (currently, there are roughly 4.5 million women aged 60 to 64 in employment).

Moreover, 92% of the 2161 respondents who participated in the Committee's 2021 survey reported that menopause symptoms (sleep difficulties, memory/concentration issues, hot flushes/night sweats, depression) affected their work ability. 

Menopause Symptoms Forcing Many Women to Stop Working

Another survey, conducted by the Fawcett Society in 2022 in over 4000 UK women aged 45 to 55, showed that perimenopause and menopause combined had prompted a large percentage of women – one in 10 – to leave work due to symptoms. 

Data from the National Child Development Study Waves 8 and 9 demonstrated that compared with women without symptoms, those who reported at least 1 problematic menopause symptom at age 50 were 43% more likely to have left their jobs by age 55 and 23% more likely to have reduced their hours. 

"What's going on now is just the tip of the iceberg," says Louise Newson, a London-based GP and menopause specialist, and chair of the The Newson Health Menopause Society and Advisory Board. "It's easy to talk about adjustments at work like flexible working and reducing hours. Like why would I want to reduce my pay because I'm menopausal? And then there's this misconception that menopause is just about hot flushes and sweat – just give the women some water, change their uniform, change their air conditioning, and they'll be fine," she laments. 

"Well, most symptoms affect our brains and doing all those work adjustments is not going to make my brain produce more hormones to work as neurotransmitters that help me think and function," says Newson.

Struggling to Keep Up

Newson recalls that when she first focused on the issue of menopause in the workplace, women were mostly signed off as having depression, anxiety, migraines, etc. "And then the doctors they went to see were just giving them antidepressants; they didn't know what was going on either," she says.

"Everyone's got their own agenda when it comes to menopause, and it's not all about helping women in a non-commercial way; women have been steered away from hormones without any good evidence," says Newson. 

Unfortunately, this lack of knowledge coupled with misconceptions about HRT has not changed much. Indeed, Findings from a 2021 questionnaire demonstrated that more than half of the 173 GP respondents felt that they weren't offered enough support or training to be able to appropriately advise and treat women with menopausal symptoms.

Rachel Weiss, founder and chairperson of Menopause Café Charity, an organisation that sponsors pop-up in-person and virtual discussion groups to break down menopause taboos and share experiences, says that "the same topics keep cropping up, including how to access a knowledgeable GP, the pros and cons of taking HRT, and not realising that there's some trial and error in finding the right HRT type and dosage." 

GPs are not the only ones struggling to keep up. Deborah Garlick, CEO of Henpicked: Menopause in the Workplace, an organisation that provides training and education for line managers, colleagues, and human resource managers, says that "today, nearly half of employers have started to make changes, with a quarter reporting they have a menopause policy in place".

Yet, "there's still a lot more to do for all employers to take action, and also, the right action. It's certainly not a topic that can be addressed in the workplace by simply downloading a menopause policy template and making it available on a workplace intranet," she says.

"All individual's experiences are different too so it's absolutely not a one-size fits all," according to Garlick.

In the interim, women going through this normal reproductive phase are fearful. Weiss says that there's still shame attached to being menopausal. "Participants at Menopause Cafés complain that they are unable to talk about what they're going through for fear of losing their job, demotion, or just looking like a whiner," she explains. "Many women don't want to own up to being perimenopausal for fear that it will impact their career progression or of being seen as incapable of doing their jobs."

At the day's end, a lot of time and effort is being spent trying to create solutions, some of which might help and others, which will not. One striking still unaddressed question is, what do UK women really want? "Women want to be listened to, understood, and supported, to be able to get an appointment with an informed doctor, and to be valued at this time in their lives despite the changes," says Weiss.

Newson sums it up more simply: "For me, the biggest thing is allowing women to have a choice so they can decide what's right for them. At the moment, that choice has not been there."