‘It’s about an attitude change’: Guardian readers on menopause support needed at work

<span>Many women stressed the importance of being able to start work later or work from home. </span><span>Photograph: monkeybusinessimages/Getty Images</span>
Many women stressed the importance of being able to start work later or work from home. Photograph: monkeybusinessimages/Getty Images

Efforts by some workplaces to support women going through menopause have been described as lacking, ranging from gift bags featuring tissues and paperclips, to simply ignoring the issue and letting employees muddle through – or leave.

But with guidance from the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) warning that employers could be sued for disability discrimination if they fail to make “reasonable adjustments” for women going through menopause, that could be about to change.

Guardian readers have shared their views on what women need in the workplace to support them through menopause, and for many the most important shift that can be made is in workplace culture.

“It’s more about an attitude change than some of the silly stuff that’s come out,” said Lucy*. “And I put that down to women as well as men.”

Lucy, 57, who works in PR, said she experienced severe hot flushes, leading to vomiting and dizziness. She began hormone replacement therapy (HRT) but it took a while to get the dose right, leaving her tearful to the point where, for the first time in her career of more than 30 years, she cried in a meeting.

“Subsequently my boss told me off for getting emotional. There was no compassion, just criticism. I was so ashamed,” she said.

The perception among some employers of menopause as a disease – or a joke – was raised by a number of readers.

“It’s not funny to be a meeting and have to grab the desk to stop yourself fainting,” said Lucy. “It’s not funny to be at dinner with friends knowing there is sweat coming down your face, back, legs. It’s not funny not sleeping through the night for 10 years.”

As well as training for employers and employees on what menopause is and the ages at which perimenopause can begin, readers suggested other measures that would be beneficial.

Many stressed the importance of flexible working, allowing employees to start later or work from home.

This is a shift that Catharine, a 56-year-old education researcher from Slough, has found helpful. “In my last job, work was putting pressure on people to be in the office, and having to get up at 6am meant that I was waking at 2am and staying awake until I went into work. I did not realise at the time I was perimenopausal,” she said.

Having switched jobs, Catharine says her new employer is more supportive and has been allowing her to work from home most of the time, which she feels is a big help – not least as she still has sleep problems, despite now being postmenopausal.

“ I still wake up at night, but there is no pressure to go into the office apart from an odd day here and there, so I sleep a bit longer in the mornings and life is so much better. I’m not starting hugely late, usually by nine or 9.30, but having that bit more flexibility really helps,” she said.

However, for some, flexibility has been difficult to attain. Marie, 42, is a schoolteacher who is perimenopausal. “The teaching profession is naturally inflexible in its very nature because of timetabling, teaching expectations and poor staffing levels, so the teaching profession appears to me to be incapable of accommodating the needs of perimenopausal women like me,” she said.

Marie, who has been experiencing brain fog and panic attacks at work, said it would be helpful to be able to negotiate workloads or deadlines when symptoms flare up, to make work more manageable. “I’m finding that tasks take me a bit longer when I’m having a foggy day,” she said.

Among other adaptations raised by several teachers was the possibility of having a colleague cover a class briefly should a hot flush strike – something that Marie said had been straightforward when she was pregnant with her second child and often needed to go to the toilet.

“It would just be nice to have the same sort of sympathy I had when I was pregnant,” she said.

Other measures that readers felt would be beneficial included menopause champions to help mediate between employees and employers when difficulties arise, flexibility in workplace clothing, the ability to have air con turned on when needed and access to somewhere to take a power nap.

In addition, many women said it was important to improve access to information about menopause and its symptoms, including its impact on mental health, not least as many said they were unaware at first that they were perimenopausal.

However, some women stressed they were concerned about employers making assumptions about their experiences of menopause, for example assuming they would have brain fog, or seeing menopause as a reason not to employ or promote mature women.

Others questioned whether specific measures were needed, given many adaptations could bring benefits for a wide range of employees.

Indeed, as Lucy pointed out, while her sleep was disturbed during menopause, so was her husband’s. “I wouldn’t really want menopausal women to suddenly be allowed to come in later when … people with babies weren’t allowed to, or people with children that were sick aren’t allowed to,” she said.

And while some women welcomed the idea of making menopause a protected characteristic, others were less convinced.

Jane, 49, a primary school teacher from Hampshire, was among those who raised concerns about the implications of the EHRC guidance.

“I think what’s needed is more of a sort of conversation in the workplace, led by larger numbers of older women in management, who are open and passionate about other women and their rights,” she said. “I think it has to come from that place, from people who want to make a change, rather than be inflicted on people.”

*Some names have been changed.