Society and communities
Breaking the menopause taboo to improve the working world for women
In the UK there are nearly 5.1 million working women aged 45-59. All women go through the menopause, and most will experience symptoms at some stage between the ages of 45-59.
Until recently, there was little evidence about whether or how the menopause affected women’s working lives, or what could be done to help. Professor Griffiths, who specialises in occupational health psychology, led the first large-scale study of women’s experiences of working through the menopause.
She said: “Before we looked systematically into this, anecdotal evidence suggested that some women were experiencing difficulties that significantly impacted on their work. But they weren’t talking about it openly. Women told me in interviews how pleased they were to see the topic being properly investigated.”
In her study she found that commonly reported problems at work were poor concentration, reduced memory, low mood and decreased confidence. Many talked about disturbed sleep and fatigue. Some reported a reduction in their work performance and were very concerned. The impact of the menopause at work for some women was considerable.
Employers are encouraged to accommodate their employees’ health conditions and provide adjustments where reasonably practicable. However, where topics are historically taboo or awareness is low, employees rarely disclose problems.
"Although the menopause is a normal stage of life, which will affect 51% of the population, we found that the majority of those going through it were reluctant to disclose menopause-related problems that were affecting them at work to their line managers."
“Although the menopause is a normal stage of life, which will affect 51% of the population, we found that the majority of those going through it were reluctant to disclose menopause-related problems that were affecting them at work to their line managers,” she said. “This was often because they were embarrassed, or because they felt that their managers would be embarrassed. So, they suffered in silence and didn’t ask for support.”
When asked what would help, women said that greater awareness among managers about menopause as an occupational health issue would be the most helpful driver of change, alongside flexible working and reliable sources of information both about menopause itself and about what their employers could do to support them. Attention to workplace temperature and ventilation was important for women who had problematic hot flushes. Subsequent studies have suggested that the ability of managers to have conversations about sensitive topics was important too. These findings have formed the basis for the publication of evidence-based guidance for women and employers.
In 2015 Professor Griffiths was invited to summarise the evidence about menopause and work for the UK Chief Medical Officer’s annual report, which led to the publication of guidance by the Faculty of Occupational Medicine (Royal College of Physicians). The Chief Medical Officer at the time, Professor Dame Sally Davies, was quoted in the press at the launch of her report: “I want to encourage managers to ensure working women feel as comfortable discussing menopausal symptoms as they would any other issues affecting them in the workplace. This will help to ensure that the talent and potential of all women can be realised to the full.”
Professor Griffiths also developed guidelines for the British Occupational Health Research Foundation (BOHRF) and the European Menopause and Andropause Society which have been used by employers and trades unions across the world. These include the Royal College of Nursing, UNISON, the TUC, the Royal College of Midwives, Nottinghamshire Police and BP International.
Speaking about the BORHF guidelines, the menopause lead for Nottinghamshire Police said: “[The document] hit the nail on the head. It had everything in there that our organisation and others should have probably picked up a few years previously”.
UNISON described the case of a staff member whom they had supported: “The guidelines afforded her authenticity and validation for the very real symptoms she was suffering from but which her manager had hitherto persistently ignored. Her sense of relief that she was finally actually being believed was inestimable.”
BP International’s Vice President for Health said: “Professor Griffiths’ work has played a significant role in the topic being far less taboo than it was 10 years ago.”
Professor Griffiths’ early work has led to further studies funded by the charity Wellbeing of Women which explore how to help managers be supportive, and how to help women help themselves.
"It’s fantastic to witness the increasing dialogue around menopause in the public domain and we’ve seen some great examples of employers implementing policies that are making a real difference to the lives of menopausal women."
She says: “It’s fantastic to witness the increasing dialogue around menopause in the public domain and we’ve seen some great examples of employers implementing policies that are making a real difference to the lives of menopausal women. Menopause is now widely considered as an important gender- and age-equality issue.”
Professor Griffiths is now Emeritus Professor and continues her research and interest in policy development. She has recently contributed to the UK’s Department of Health and Social Care Women’s Health Strategy call for evidence, and the Government’s Women and Equalities Committee inquiry into the menopause and the workplace. She is part of an international expert group on menopause that in 2021 developed global consensus recommendations on menopause in the workplace and a recommended menopause curriculum for health care professionals.
She says, “There is still work to do to keep the issue of menopause at the forefront of employers’ and policymakers’ minds. This is part of a wider conversation about helping employers recognise that most employees are likely to have health conditions at some point during their working lives, and that there is a lot they can do to be supportive. Good employers already know this and believe their efforts result in a happier and more productive workforce.”
Amanda Griffiths is Emeritus Professor of Occupational Health Psychology in the School of Medicine.