World Menopause Day is held each year on 18 October. Did you celebrate? Commiserate? Do you know what menopause is? Do your employees know what it is? Did you know that around eight out of 10 people who have a menstrual cycle will experience menopausal symptoms and that these can last between four and eight years? Did you know that a quarter of sufferers will experience severe symptoms and that these symptoms can sometimes leave sufferers with no choice but to resign from their employment? Worse still, did you know that many sufferers face discrimination due to being menopausal and, as a result, lose their jobs?
The purpose of World Menopause Day is to “raise awareness, break the stigma and highlight the support available for improving health and wellbeing for those experiencing menopause”. And, clearly, it is needed. From an employment perspective, New Zealand has been slow to address the issue, particularly in comparison to other countries.
Despite gender equality becoming a real focus of many workplaces in recent times, menopause is still somewhat of a taboo topic. A lack of information about, and understanding of, this completely natural part of life is likely be to blame. The ongoing failure to provide sufferers with support will only result in unnecessary turnover and production losses and, given the usual age of sufferers, a wealth of experience and loyalty. Appropriately addressing menopause in the workplace is also beneficial in terms of attracting talent and achieving recognition as an equal opportunities’ employer.
So, what can workplaces do from a practical perspective? Educating senior people and the wider workforce is an essential first step. Sufferers need to know that help is available, and that they are understood and accepted. They need assistance to retain employment and work in a comfortable manner; alternative and flexible working arrangements will be an asset, like they have been for so many employees since the pandemic. Senior people need to lead the way in terms of education and demonstrate a no-nonsense approach to discussing menopause in the workplace. If the workforce needs educating, they should be educated (think posters, fact sheets, trainings, webinars etc.). Employers should respond quickly to jokes or comments that belittle sufferers or take away from the goal of becoming an open and equal workplace. Everyone needs to be empathetic.
Employers could also consider implementing a Menopause Policy, or if this feels like a step too far, at least have resources available for staff to access. Employers can’t rely on sufferers to break their silence and ask for assistance; a place where they can seek information on the support available to them could be extremely valuable. In addition to flexible working arrangements, employers could offer additional leave days, and wellbeing or medical support for the variety of mental and physical symptoms that sufferers experience.
Form a purely legal standpoint, there is legislation which requires employers to ensure the health and safety (including both mental and physical health) of employees. Discrimination on the basis of disability (which includes physical illness) is also prohibited under the Human Rights Act 1993. Discrimination on the basis of menopause under this ground is however untested in New Zealand at this point. There is also the basic requirement to treat employees fairly and in good faith (as outlined in the Employment Relations Act 2000). There remain a number of unanswered questions and ongoing challenges in relation to how workplaces in New Zealand understand, and treat, menopause sufferers. While businesses need to address the issue from a legal and practical perspective, simply being able to discuss menopause freely and openly is a great start. The ability to recognise the symptoms, understand their impacts on employees and their work, and provide sufficient support without judgement or bias is the first step. Demonstrating a commitment to addressing menopause in the workplace through the provision of information and appropriate training, is another step in the right direction.
So, the answer? We can all do better.