Workplaces should start catering for the menopause in a comparable way to pregnancy, according to one of Britain’s leading women’s health experts.
Myra Hunter, emeritus professor of clinical health psychology at King’s College London said that menopausal symptoms remained a “taboo issue” in many workplaces and, while policies to support pregnant women are now standard, there is still little awareness of the impact that the menopause can have on women who are often at the peak of their career.
“Often there’s a will to address this among managers, but they just don’t know how to talk about it,” said Hunter. “Women want it to be raised if appropriate. They don’t want to be treated as ill, they just want some understanding and awareness of it.”
The call comes as Hunter and colleagues publish the results of one of the first major studies looking at how symptoms such as hot flushes affect women at work. The study, which tracked 124 female employees in the public and private sectors, found that such symptoms could have a significant impact, but that following a simple programme of cognitive behavioural therapy, delivered via a self-help booklet, hugely reduced the degree to which women felt their symptoms were problematic.
The menopause occurs at the age of 51 years, on average, and the way women experience this transition can vary a lot. About 80% of women experience some hot flushes and night sweats and for 20 to 30% these symptoms are severe enough to have a significant impact on quality of life. Some women also report tiredness, “brain fog”, mood swings and loss of confidence. For some women, the transition period lasts just a few years and in others it can last a decade.
There is no strong evidence that the menopause causes women to leave jobs in large numbers or that it has a negative impact on professional performance. “The evidence we’ve got from surveys, it’s subjective, but it suggests that women might over-compensate,” said Hunter.
The trial recruited 124 women who were struggling with their symptoms (the women experienced 56 flushes on average each week). Half the women were provided with a self-help booklet that provided guidance on how to cope with work stress, how to discuss the menopause at work and which challenged negative stereotypes associated with the menopause, such as “being past it”.
The booklet also set women cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) exercises, in which they were asked to write down the thoughts they have during hot flushes, for instance, and then challenge these beliefs.
“If a woman has a hot flush half the anxiety is about how people see her,” said Hunter. “There’s embarrassment and anxiety about being joked about and a big concept is hiding symptoms in fear of being ridiculed.”
“Really, we shouldn’t feel like that and when women verbalise it, it does appear ridiculous,” she added.
Women who were given the booklet reported a noticeable reduction in both their symptoms and how problematic they were. When they were followed up after five months, the number of hot flushes they experienced was reduced by one third, they reported better quality sleep and viewed their symptoms more neutrally. In interviews after the trial, 82% said the intervention had reduced the impact of their symptoms and 37% had spoken about their menopause to their line manager.
Kathy Abernethy, chair of the British Menopause Society and a specialist nurse, welcomed the work, saying that a social shift was underway with people generally becoming more open about discussing the menopause.
This trend, she said, has been partly driven by celebrities who “have decided that it’s not something embarrassing to talk about”. Far more women in their 50s are also in work than in the past. According to the Department for Work and Pensions, the proportion of women aged 50 to 64 with jobs has risen by more than 50% in the past 30 years.
“Women simply want to know workplaces are taking it seriously,” Abernethy added. “Awareness is a key thing. If managers are aware of the menopause it means the whole thing becomes a non-issue, like pregnancy.”
Tina Weaver, CEO of the charity Wellbeing of Women, which funded the research, said the study offered practical and accessible interventions to help women. “It’s alarming so many women suffer from these debilitating symptoms and feel so unsupported during the menopause that they drop out of the work force,” she said. “This natural process has been overlooked and considered a taboo for too long.”