Menopausal women don’t need special treatment at work

Davina McCall says she ‘felt lonely’ during menopause

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The NHS has committed to making workplace adaptations for menopausal women, giving them the option to work from home or turn the heating down. Two writers shared their thoughts with the Telegraph on whether the policy is a good idea or not.

Menopausal women working in the NHS are set to benefit from adaptations including flexible working, menopause-friendly uniforms and access to fans. 

Women make up around 75 percent of NHS staff and research has shown 10 percent of women leave their jobs and many more reduce their hours or pass up promotions because of their menopausal symptoms.

The NHS recently signed the Menopause Workplace Pledge, saying “it is very important that the NHS takes action now in order to retain their extraordinary and committed staff”. But does this help or hinder women in the workplace?

Eleanor Mills, editor-in-chief of Noon.org.uk, a platform for women in midlife said: “This is not just the humane thing to do, it also makes great business sense.”

Writing in the Telegraph, she said:  “Three cheers for Amanda Pritchard, head of the NHS, who this week became the first employer to say that menopausal women can work flexibly, or even from home, if they are feeling awful.

Talking about her personal experience, she said her menopause “hasn’t been too bad”. 

“I’ve had pretty horrendous night sweats – the kind where you wake up drenched, like you’ve been in the shower – and some joint pain. And I’ve had a bit of brain fog. At one point I was worried I had early-onset dementia; when words are your business – I’m a writer, a talker, a presenter – it’s pretty disconcerting when you are on live TV, or fronting a panel of high-powered women, and your mind goes blank. 

“I’d find myself having to elongate my sentences because the right word eluded me. Or having to stop typing while my brain sought the connection. I hated that. Knowing the right word, at the right time, is key to who I am.”

But she considers herself to have got off lightly. She said: “I haven’t been suicidally depressed, found sex so painful I could scream or woken up every night in a panic of anxiety like some. 

“For the one in four women who is hit really hard by the change – and research shows that women of colour get worse symptoms which begin earlier – an understanding employer really is a must.

“We hear a lot about how we want to get more women into leadership, running companies, being in government, etc – but the average age of a CEO is 56 (and a chairman, 61). If we lose loads of good women from organisations in their menopausal years, then we’ll never get to gender parity. So cutting us some slack is about justice.

“It’s all very well to say menopause isn’t an illness – but it still makes you feel damn uncomfortable. Why should women have to “tough it out” and suffer in silence? Why shouldn’t we come into work a bit late and stay a bit late if we’ve had a night of anxiety and insomnia, or a very heavy bleed? Why shouldn’t we work from home if commuting in would be painful and awkward. 

“We Gen X women haven’t quit work while we raised our families, we’ve hung in there and we’re still going. And if we’re going to support ourselves into our old age – pensions now don’t start until we are 67 – we need to keep working. 

“The country and the economy need us. So cut us a break as we white-knuckle our way through the change, and we’ll reward you with decades of active service ahead. It’s a win-win.”

But Melanie McDonagh isn’t so sure. The journalist wrote: “It’s remarkable, don’t you think, that a condition that affects half the population who survive beyond 50 has, all of a sudden, been medicalised? Amanda Pritchard’s guidance to NHS workers is just the latest surge of corporate empathy. 

“Work from home if you are “silently suffering” from menopausal symptoms? Fabulous! Given that there is precisely no way of knowing whether someone is undergoing temperature or mood swings or any of the other outward signs of hormone changes, it sounds like an invitation to take it easy. Other employers have done the same – many, it should be noted, in the public sector.”

She called the policy “nuts”, adding: “If we’re not careful it’s going to turn older women – the sort employers quite like at present because we don’t need maternity leave – into a workplace liability. 

“You might get away with that on the NHS, but just try asking to stay at home because of hormonal changes if you’re working for a struggling small business. Or indeed, for yourself.”

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She added: “What we seem to forget is that the menopause is a normal part of the female condition. It is simply a function of living longer than your reproductive capacity. It happens when the pituitary gland in your brain tells your ovaries to produce eggs, just like they used to, and your ovaries respond with the hormonal equivalent of a rude gesture.  

“It’s not anyone’s idea of fun. Like most menopausal women, I get flushes, the odd sweat, temperature fluctuations and weight gain (aggravated by the consumption of chocolate). It’s possibly the case that I also get mood swings, though it’s frankly difficult to distinguish a menopausal strop from the ordinary sort. 

Some of the original menopause awareness campaigns were to do with access to hormone replacement therapy, and granted, every woman should have access to HRT if she needs it. (Incidentally, may I point out that HRT is not infallible? I take it every day and I still get temperature swings.) 

“But asking for time off, special uniforms, fans at the desk and the rest of it is just embarrassing. It’s to turn mature women into invalids, too frail to get on with the business of life, hormones and work without help.”

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