Dubbed ‘the last taboo’ – how can managers help support staff who are facing the menopause? Matt Chittock finds out

In the modern office staff are encouraged to talk openly about issues that would have been considered taboo just a generation ago. From depression and sexuality through to bereavement and divorce, there's very little that's considered totally off the radar these days. Apart, that is, from the menopause.

A lack of support

In a report earlier this year pensions campaigner Ros Altmann said she felt menopausal women get no support in the workplace. She then went on to spell out exactly how the symptoms can affect someone's working life. A woman may come in one day feeling awful and emotional and a lot of women find it hard to cope, she said. You cant sleep at night because of night sweats or you flush in a meeting.

It's a sentiment that 52-year-old sales manager Sophie Prince* can certainly relate to. I was really unprepared for the menopause, to be honest, she says.

"I've always felt really confident in my job and have had a really supportive team, but it hit me like a tonne of bricks."

Prince says that she went from feeling naturally upbeat to being tearful and upset in the office. Hot flushes didn't feel like a particular problem, but then she uncharacteristically found herself weeping in front of her managers and felt emotionally wobbly from day to day.

"The worst thing is feeling like a terrible cliché she says. I know exactly what is happening, but I cant stop it. It affects my confidence and I felt that overall I've lost my competitive edge. I no longer feel that I can keep up with my colleagues."

Prince is definitely not alone. According to the TUC 3.5 million women over the age of 50 are currently in work. And as the UK average for reaching the menopause is 52, its a challenge many staff, and managers, will have to face.

"It's important to remember that some women sail through the menopause with very few symptoms," says Scarlet Harris, equality expert for the TUC.

"But our research shows that 45% of women who do have symptoms find them difficult to deal with. These can range from hot flushes and sleepless nights, which can leave women feeling tired at work, to depression. So how can managers support women going through such a major change in their lives?"

Getting rid of the stigma

The first step is simply to take the menopause seriously. According to TUC research 45% of survey respondents said that their managers didn't recognise problems associated with the menopause.

"Also, a third felt embarrassed speaking to their manager about it while one in five told of office ridicule when the subject was mentioned. It's about letting women know they can talk about it if they want to, and not stigmatising them or making them feel that there's this strange alien thing going on with their bodies that's so bad they need to be wrapped up in cotton wool!," says Harris.

"There's more practical things that managers can do too. If you've got a staff noticeboard, putting up work guidance about coping with the menopause could be a good idea as it shows your company is positive about it. Also making sure that women have some control over their environment is important, being able to sit by an open window and control the temperature, for instance."

Of course, as Harris notes, one of the biggest problems is that nobody wants to talk about the menopause. But she says that is slowly changing.

"When I started this job I didn't realise it was much of an issue, but every time we've done something around it the response has been really strong," she says.

Meanwhile, as high profile women start to smash through the glass ceiling and talk publically about their experiences, the hope is that the menopause will cease to be such a taboo.

In the meantime, people like Prince are finding their own way to get through. "I've never been able to go to my boss and say you know what? I'm going through this and having a hard time its just not that sort of company," she says.

"In the office we acknowledge it without really acknowledging it. I like it on the level of office banter. So, I'll say that I'm having a bit of a moment and people understand what I mean. If my boss was a woman it might be different but this is how its working now."

Three tips from the TUCs guidance

1. Be flexible. Procedures around sickness absence should make it clear that there's flexibility around menopause-related issues. Being flexible with start times can also help if women are finding it hard to sleep.

2. Offer different points of contact. Women may be uncomfortable about talking about their symptoms with a manager, especially a male manager, so make it clear that staff in human resources, or a work welfare scheme, are also there to listen.

3. Get educated. Employers should ensure that all line managers have been trained to be aware of how the menopause can affect women and what adjustments may be necessary to support them.

*name changed by request.