Most women will go through the menopause at some point in their life. Yet, similarly to menstruation, there is a stigma around talking about this natural part of ageing. Why should women feel ashamed to talk about this? And why should they have to quietly suffer when struggling with the ongoing symptoms associated with it?
While some women may experience mild symptoms, this varies between individuals. From physical symptoms such as hot flushes, headaches, and night sweats to unseen symptoms such as low moods, anxiety, and difficulties with memory and concentration. These can last on and off for months and even years – with 10 per cent of women experiencing symptoms for up to 12 years. The effects can be extremely distressing.
About 25 per cent of women experience such severe symptoms that they can be diagnosed with mental health problems and the highest prevalence for suicide among women is between the ages of 50-54 (around the age most will experience menopause).
Despite this, women continue on, often hiding their symptoms and keeping discussion to a minimum, particularly with employers. The UK workforce is ageing and with the government forcing women to work longer, it is fact that women over 50 are by far the fastest-growing group of workers. The changing age of the UK’s workforce means that between 75 per cent and 80 per cent of menopausal women are in work.
Research by the British Occupational Health Research Foundation found that many women felt they were not really prepared for the arrival of the menopause, and even less equipped to manage the symptoms.
Yet the same research found that women are not comfortable disclosing their symptoms to their managers, particularly if those managers are younger than them or are male. Where women had taken time off work to deal with their symptoms, only half of them disclosed the real reason for absence to their line managers. Women are silently covering up their symptoms and struggling in silence, which can lead to problems at work or a deterioration in work output. Women are sometimes overworking to cover up perceived shortcomings. Some, however, decide to work part-time, and many consider leaving the workforce altogether.
That’s why I am proud to announce Labour’s new menopause workplace policy.
We will ensure that training is provided for line managers to be aware of how the menopause can affect working women and understand what adjustments may be necessary. By starting the dialogue, we want to ensure that work environments are open about how they can support their female workers experiencing the symptoms of the menopause.
We will also encourage flexible working policies that cater for women experiencing the fluctuating long-term symptoms of the menopause, and ensure that flexible sickness absence procedures are in place that do not penalise female workers experiencing menopause and having multiple short-term absences.
These policies will make a positive difference for women up and down the country. But this is just part of our plans for a workplace revolution under the next Labour government to secure equality at work. Labour will deliver policies like these by a separate, stand-alone Women and Equalities department headed for the very first time by a full-time Secretary of State, putting equality right at the heart of government.
We believe in an equal society. A society that is fit for all, and no one is held back. Women should not be at a disadvantage because of the symptoms of menopause. We are a vital part of the workforce and the workforce should be fit for us to thrive in. That’s why the next Labour government will support women, from menstruation to menopause.
Dawn Butler is shadow women and equalities secretary