Support mitigates menopause taboo

U. NOTTINGHAM (UK) —Still often considered a hush-hush subject at the workplace, employers need to do more to support women coping with the fatigue, poor concentrations, hot flashes, and depression that often accompany menopause.

A new study finds many women are not prepared for the arrival of the menopause, and nearly half have difficulties coping with symptoms at work. A similar number felt their job performance had been negatively affected, and nearly a fifth thought menopause made managers and colleagues view them as less competent.

Menopause occurs between the ages of 45 and 5—the average age in the UK is 52. Of those people in the UK workforce older than 50, forty-five percent are women—representing 3.5 million workers.

Associated symptoms can last from four to eight years, and include hot flashes, palpitations, night sweats and sleep disturbance, fatigue, poor concentration, irritability, mood disturbance, skin irritation and dryness. Women say the major impact of symptoms at work included tiredness, poor memory, feeling depressed, and decreased confidence.

“This study has made it clear that menopause presents an occupational health issue for some women, and for a significant period of time,” says Amanda Griffiths, professor at the University of Nottingham.

“The years leading up to and after menopause can be demanding and stressful for some women, and the majority of those who took part in this study felt they needed further advice and support. Our results showed that some women received considerable understanding and help from their colleagues and managers and it was greatly valued.

“However, such practices vary enormously. In many settings, there was very little awareness of menopause as a potential occupational health issue—it was a ‘taboo’ topic. In such circumstances, women typically suffer in silence, dare not speak openly about their difficulties, and consequently cannot receive the understanding and support they need.

“Many of the participants in this research were embarrassed to disclose their problems or feared that their managers would be embarrassed if they raised the subject, particularly if those managers were younger than them or were male. Where women had taken time off work to deal with their symptoms, only half of them disclosed the real reason for absence to their line managers.”

Proposed workplace improvements include:

  • greater awareness of managers about menopause as a possible occupational health issue for women.
  • increased flexibility of working hours and working arrangements.
  • better access to informal and formal sources of support.
  • improvements in workplace temperature and ventilation.

Women need to feel empowered to speak openly about their health issues and to ask for help, Griffiths says.

Employers can help in this process by communicating to their workforce that health-related problems such as menopause are ‘normal.’

“Organizations varied greatly in their willingness to be involved in this research. While some immediately became engaged and saw its significance, others did not appear to consider this a topic worthy of serious consideration. Knowledge about menopause was limited and there was often an apparent reluctance to probe a potentially sensitive area.

“However, it subsequently became clear when interviewing women that the vast majority were delighted that this hitherto taboo matter was being scientifically explored, and that information and guidance might become available for future generations of women.”

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