Menopause in the Workplace

by Pat Duckworth

Possible impact at work

Menopause is not a ‘soft’ issue. The range of physical and emotional symptoms that can arise during the years of menopause (perimenopause) can have an impact on performance, attendance and relationships at work. Some implications for the major symptoms are set out below.

Hot flushes

The impact of hot flushes will depend not just on how it is experienced by the individual, but also on the nature of the work they are involved in. In a public environment, where it is difficult to conceal unpredictable hot flushes and excessive sweating, women can feel acutely self-conscious and embarrassed. For example, a woman with a back office job and her own office space may be able to deal with symptoms more easily than a woman who has regular interaction with members of the public and works in an open plan environment with predominantly male colleagues.

Women (and men) who have a particular problem with hot flushes may experience issues working in environments where they are required to wear protective clothing or a compulsory uniform. There may be similar problems for such individuals who work in ‘clean’ areas, with set break times and limited access to rest facilities for ‘cooling off’.

These may be issues that you can discuss and resolve on a one-to-one basis. Alternatively, you may be able to refer such environmental issues to your Health and Safety Officer, who will hopefully be able to make work station adjustments.

Heavy and irregular periods

For women whose work involves a lot of standing, heavy bleeding can cause discomfort and embarrassment. This can also be an issue in open plan offices, particularly where there is ‘hot-desking’, leaving individuals without any private storage space. Most women prefer to keep emergency tampons or sanitary towels in their desks; if they don’t have a desk, this then becomes a problem.

You may need to consider some practical options, such as a change of duties, the provision of chairs, personal storage and so on.

Stress

Some women find that the physical and emotional symptoms of menopause detract from their ability to cope with work situations. Women in senior positions frequently feel that their ability to be in control, make decisions and act as a role model for colleagues becomes difficult during menopause. This can lead to feelings of stress.

Stress can give rise to physical and behavioural symptoms. Physical symptoms include headaches, dizziness, insomnia, palpitations, high blood pressure and sleep problems. Behavioural signs to be aware of are

  • Withdrawal from the company of colleagues
  • Absenteeism
  • Eating meals at the desk or skipping meals
  • Deteriorating performance
  • Loss of memory
  • Irritability
  • Working excessive hours.

For more information, see the topic on Stress Management.

Depression

There are specific issues relating to people going through depression. Some women and men experience mood swings during the perimenopause/andropause and this can lead to depression. Many people describe anxiety, fear and panic attacks as being closely tied to their depression. Common symptoms of clinical depression are

  • Feelings of hopelessness that last most of the day, every day, for two weeks or longer
  • General tiredness and lack of energy
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Loss of interest in activities that were pleasurable in the past
  • Sleep disorder
  • Self-harm
  • Recurrent thoughts of suicide or death.

If you become aware of any of these symptoms in one of your team, your conversation with them needs to be around encouraging them to seek medical advice. A doctor has to diagnose depression because the symptoms could be caused by an underlying health issue. Treatment may involve medication, such as anti-depressants, lithium or sleeping tablets. Alternatively, they may suggest talking treatments, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).

People with severe depression are likely to be unable to attend work. In 2004, stress, anxiety and depression accounted for 56 million working days lost in the UK, translating to a cost of sickness absence of about £4.1 billion. Prompt intervention and support can lead to an earlier resolution of the problem through treatment.

Depression is covered by the Disability Discrimination Act. Where an employee has been absent for a significant period because of depression, you will need to plan their return to work. This will include a discussion about any work-based issues and reasonable adjustments. If appropriate, seek additional guidance, with the individual’s consent, from your occupational health adviser or from their GP or specialist.

Adjustments may include

  • Planning and managing a phased return to work
  • Allowing the employee to reduce their working hours, either on a temporary or permanent basis
  • Providing additional supervision or support
  • Providing a secure and confidential place to store medication, if appropriate
  • Talking to the employee about the signs and symptoms that indicate the employee is at risk of relapse and what the employee would like you to do in response
  • Transferring the individual to a suitable alternative vacancy within your organisation.

This is not an exhaustive list and the adjustments required will vary between individuals.