Tackling the Menopause taboo – practical steps that law firms can take to support women in the workplace
04 March 2022
Menopause remains a taboo subject for many working in law firms. It’s a word that carries a certain stigma and a degree of embarrassment to discuss it.
But as more high profile women talk openly about their own experiences, there is a definite movement to try and normalise the subject.
Throughout this article, we use the words “woman” and “female” to refer to people who experience this condition, however recognise that there are people who identify as female who do not experience this conditions and people who do not identify as female who do. In this context, employers should also consider the additional health & wellbeing considerations of employees who identify as non-binary or transgender or who may be impacted in any other way.
Why should law firms care?
Put simply, a lack of support for women experiencing the menopause could result in a loss of female talent and experience. A Law Society report revealed that the number of women aged between 36-40 years who hold a practising certificate reduces by 57% when compared with the number of women aged between 51-55 years with a practising certificate. The corresponding reduction for men is only 18%.
And while the report does not reveal the specific cause of their departure, it is not unreasonable to draw a conclusion between more women leaving and the menopause.
What is menopause?
The menopause is a natural event. Every woman will go through it at some point. The menopause is when a woman's ovaries stop working and her periods stop, this generally happens between the ages of 45 and 55.
It is caused by declining oestrogen levels, though it can also be caused by cancer treatment or having an underlying health condition. Around one in 100 women reaches menopause before the age of 40 and, in these cases, the cause is not always clear.
Though menopause is a natural part of life, it can have various impacts previously not experienced that often start months or years beforehand and last up to four years from its onset:
- - Mental health problems i.e. reduced confidence or low self-esteem
- - Stress
- - Hot flushes
- - Difficulty sleeping
- - Low mood or anxiety
- - Experiencing out of character symptoms, such as someone who was previously never low now becoming extremely anxious.
- - Problems with memory and concentration
Despite how common menopause is, it is not always discussed in workplaces. Its symptoms, such as hot flushes, can cause embarrassment or leave women feeling less confident. Women report being unwilling to disclose the challenges they are facing to their line managers, who may be male or younger than them.
As 75-80% of women of menopausal age are in work, accounting for a significant portion of the skills and experience in our workforce, it’s vital for businesses to provide appropriate support and a culture of inclusivity.
What impact can the menopause have on firms & female employees?
One report found that women who are going through the menopause between the ages of 50 and 55 take an average of two months off work because of their symptoms, while women who experience early menopause (before they reach 45) take four months off.
For employers, this can mean significant increases in sickness absence rates. For individuals affected, it can mean they miss out on £10,000 - £20,000 in earnings and pension contributions.
One survey found that around half of those experiencing the menopause felt their symptoms prevented them from applying for more senior positions and that they were not receiving enough support. This could mean organisations struggle to recruit or promote women in this age group, increasing the gender pay gap and missing out on their talents and experience.
With women now comprising over 60% of new entrants to the legal profession, it’s important for firms to normalise discussions around menopause and offer support. This can help to ensure that the next generation of women does not leave the profession because they feel unsupported in managing their menopause symptoms at work.
What support can employers offer?
Making small adjustments to the working environment can improve health and help to lessen some menopause symptoms. i.e. different equipment and desk fans can also be helpful.
Medical assistance can also be key. For instance, it is possible to include hormone replacement therapy (HRT) in private medical insurance cover.
Putting policies in place to support changing needs during different life stages, and specific support around menopause, can have a powerful impact. Managers may also need support to meet individual employee needs.
Firms and legal businesses should try to create a culture which encourages openness, where those experiencing the menopause feel comfortable asking for the help they need to manage their symptoms. Talking openly, positively and respectfully about the menopause can really help show commitment to employees that the firm has menopause on its agenda and that it is recognised as a workplace issue.
Enhanced flexible working can also make a difference. Understanding the possible challenges and educating employees beyond physical symptoms is important.
Tools to help employees manage menopause include:
- Raising awareness such as Menopause awareness workshops
- Communicating & signposting to support & resources available
- Training managers and leaders
- Offering Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)
- Supporting lifelong learning and on-the-job training
- Providing access to healthcare support
- Putting specific menopause support in place
- Offering staff personalised support with experienced menopause practitioners
- Making reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act 2010
Which employee benefits can help?
- Employee assistance programmes (EAP)
- Mental health support
- Private medical insurance
- Health cash plans
- Workplace wellbeing programmes
- Virtual GP
Private medical insurance means employees can avoid NHS waiting lists. With evidence of extremely long waiting times for treatments like hormone replacement therapy (HRT), which can dramatically improve menopause symptoms, private medical insurance may prevent women from leaving the workforce due to their symptoms.
With a culture of silence around menopause common in many businesses, having a workplace wellbeing programme and EAP that provides women with a safe space to seek support and advice can help to alleviate the sense that women are suffering in silence.