I have wanted to write a blog for Wonkhe for a long time now, but, perhaps because I suffer from a serious case of policy wonk imposter syndrome, I’ve never thought there was a topic I was knowledgeable enough to write about with any sort of authority. They say write about what you know, so I want to reflect on an issue, a taboo even, that impacts strongly on women’s mental health. The menopause.
According to the NHS, the menopause is a natural part of ageing that usually occurs between 45 and 55 years of age, as a woman’s oestrogen levels decline. In the UK, the average age for a woman to reach the menopause is 51.
However, around one in a hundred women experience the menopause before 40 years of age. This is known as premature menopause. There are also women who experience the menopause early, but temporarily, when it is medically induced, for example as part of a treatment plan for the painful and common condition endometriosis. Some women will enter the menopause permanently and abruptly as a result of surgery, or certain treatments for diseases including breast cancer.
Being, generally, a “natural” process does not mean it is easy or straightforward. Most women will experience menopausal symptoms and, as the NHS guidance suggests, some of these can be quite severe and have a significant impact on everyday activities.
Symptoms that can be particularly disruptive in the workplace include hot flushes (that tend to come at the most inopportune moments), dizziness, insomnia which makes you feel tired and irritable in the day, headaches, and perhaps worst of all, depression and anxiety. All of these can lead to forgetfulness and “brain fog” which can sometimes affect your concentration and productivity at work. These are also generally unseen health issues.
Why is it a higher education issue?
Why should this matter to the Wonkhe community? One reason is that the employment rate for women over 50 has grown strongly in recent years. Universities employ thousands of women across a broad age range. According to HESA, female staff accounted for 48 per cent of full-time staff and 67 per cent of part-time staff in 2017/18. By definition, this means that universities employ thousands of menopausal women, most of whom will be experiencing some or all of the symptoms outlined above, potentially over a number of years. And of course let’s not forget that many students, mature, but also young, will be experiencing the menopause too.
A University and College Union (UCU) briefing on supporting menopausal women at work notes “often the menopause is still not recognised as a workplace issue which results in many women being unable to access the adjustments they need.”
The UCU briefing suggests a number of practical arrangements that could be put in place to better support women in the workplace, ranging from ensuring sickness absence procedures are flexible enough to meet the needs of menopause-related absences, to considering the temperature and ventilation of workspaces.
A call to action
The University of Leicester was the first university in the UK to adopt a workplace menopause policy in 2017, and based on an online search a modest number of other universities have workplace menopause policies and procedures publicly accessible on their websites. The University of Manchester, to take another example, has officially recognised the menopause as an occupational health issue, and menopause cafés are becoming more commonplace at universities. There may be many more policies in development, and perhaps some are hidden in amongst universities’ intranet pages.
I would like to see every university, and indeed all workplaces, adopting workplace menopause policies, and actively creating environments where it’s OK to talk to each other, and your line manager, about the menopause and how it is impacting on your life. Crucially, this must be done in such a way that you needn’t fear that you will be seen as less competent or “too emotional” as a result of speaking openly about your experience. Line managers, particularly those with no direct experience of the menopause and its symptoms, will require information and guidance if they are to feel empowered to support their colleagues.
In an open and supportive working environment, it is more likely women will be able to secure the adjustments they need. This might include the option to work from home from time to time during a bad patch, or to alter working hours to make it possible to travel on less busy (and therefore slightly less stiflingly hot) trains on the commute.
Not all women will want to speak openly about how the menopause affects them, and indeed there may be risks associated with speaking up or asking for adjustments, especially when unhelpful stereotypes about the menopause still exist, and older women often face the double-whammy of age and sex discrimination.
In creating policies, procedures and communities of support, we must not problematise the menopause, or create one-size-fits all solutions that assume every experience of the menopause will be the same (especially given the interaction of the menopause with other health conditions, for example in younger women).
But as a sector employing many thousands of women, we must recognise this is not a niche issue, and do all we can to support and retain women in the workplace.
I never thought my first article for Wonkhe would be about the menopause. It’s funny how things turn out.