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Is Menopause the Ever-Growing Issue — or the Lack of People Skills?

Learning & Development 29th May 2024

Menopause - WorkplaceA rising number of employment tribunal cases are citing the impact of menopause as a contributing factor.

Meanwhile, the Equality and Human Rights Commission has made it clear that when menopause symptoms have a substantial impact on a woman’s day-to-day work they may be considered a ‘disability’ — in which case employers have a legal obligation to make reasonable adjustments and not discriminate.

What’s really happening here? It’s obviously not a new issue. Working women have always needed to deal with menopause symptoms — which can include effects on mood, concentration and memory, as well as lower confidence and anxiety. And around 80% of people going through the menopause are in work.

So it’s an important issue for HR and employers to be aware of, in terms of providing a supportive workplace environment. But isn’t the issue another example of where the sense of employee discontent, of not being appreciated or listened to, followed by the rush to formal complaints and legal action, should never have happened?

The importance of good conversations

As with any people issue, it should be a simple issue of good conversations. Employee voices being heard, a dialogue and a mutual platform of understanding. Not claims of mistreatment, discrimination and calls for more hard action in terms of legislation and creating more protected characteristics in the workplace. Something human rather than formal processes — that are really only being used to paper over a lack of people skills and mature relationships. In other words, using systems to avoid awkward conversations over subjects like menopause.

There continues to be varying levels of support from employers around the menopause. In 2019, 900,000 UK women decided to leave their job because of a mismatch between their role and menopausal symptoms according to CIPD/Bupa research. But attitudes have changed, and more cases are ending up in court as people start to see that challenges at work are not their ‘fault’ — an employer is being unreasonable or uncaring.

The advice from HR bodies generally tends to focus on awareness and training, making sure the implications of the menopause are added to the growing list of sensitivities and considerations that HR, managers and staff in general all need to keep in mind. So training for managers to become more familiar with the symptoms and how they might affect needs and behaviours. What to consider in terms of adapting facilities. Reviewing policies around sickness and performance management so that the menopause is taken into account.

This is all useful belt and braces. The kind of response that might help with responding to difficult questions in tribunals — but does it, in practice, help women deal with personal and sensitive health issues like these? And do they really make for a genuinely understanding and positive workplace environment?

Psychological Safety, not compliance

In some ways, the growing attention to staff with menopausal symptoms now feels like part of a familiar routine. We’ve woken up to another issue that was once felt to be taboo — or at least nothing to do with work and the workplace; another human situation that used to belong solely to home life, something to deal with out of hours. Just like mental health once was, not so long ago.

There are awareness campaigns, training for staff to provide specific support, everyone is supposed to feel more comfortable bringing up their issues. But formal policies and processes don’t necessarily mean a better experience. There’s no indication, anywhere, on any level, that the mental health of employees is becoming more robust as a result of years of more attention and focus from HR.

What really matters is what goes on behind the ‘official ’HR process and whether there is a feeling of trust and safety when it comes to employees being themselves, all of themselves. So it’s a people thing. Do people feel they are really being listened to and understood or are they being dealt with in a mechanical way? Logged on the system and pushed towards an online resource.

That’s why HR needs to be looking more at the informal channels for dealing with concerns, people skills and good conversations. Because whatever the specific nature of the worry is, what’s causing the conflict with work demands and expectations, the only real solutions come with a true sense of psychological safety, not compliance.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska