1 Feb 2022

University programme providing support guide for employers on helping menopausal workers

9:43 am on 1 February 2022

There is a growing push for employers to provide more support for workers suffering the symptoms of menopause.

Doctor (gynecologist or psychiatrist) consulting and examining woman patient's health in medical clinic or hospital health service center

For one in five women, symptoms of menopause will be debilitating. (File image) Photo: 123RF

Experts say women should not be expected to soldier on in silence and should speak up when symptoms like insomnia and anxiety are affecting their work and their lives.

More than 30 symptoms have been linked to perimenopause and menopause, including hot flushes, insomnia, brain fog, and anxiety.

For one in five women, those symptoms will be debilitating.

Julie Stafford was one of them.

"I started started suffering from huge anxiety, brain fog, horrific sleep disruption, and heart palpitations," she told RNZ.

"It was, quite honestly, one of the darkest periods in my life.

"I lost all my confidence and I felt I was failing in my role. I couldn't focus and felt in a state of panic all the time.

"Even doing the simplest tasks just felt like climbing a mountain. I was basically exhausted the end of each day and would hit the bed as soon as I walked through the door when I got home."

Even though she was post-menopausal, an endocrinologist eventually found her symptoms were due to the hormonal changes midlife brings.

After a course of hormone therapy brought her back to herself, Stafford, the operations and projects manager at the University of Canterbury's College of Engineering, set to work.

She began the Ruahinetanga: Menopause at Work Programme at the university, which launched last October on World Menopause Day.

"We developed university guidelines, a support guide for managers to help them hold sensitive conversations with staff, and a website which has information, practical suggestions and links to many resources," Stafford said.

"We arranged a seminar for staff on our launch week and we've got more seminars to come this year, we're holding regular menopause cafes and we set up a menopause supporters group, so any staff can contact them and have a confidential and understanding chat with that person."

Stafford said the group aimed to educate staff and managers, provide support and practical suggestions, and try to lift the stigma around discussing menopause at work.

In New Zealand, the average age of menopause is 52, and while not every woman will have debilitating symptoms, they can take an immense toll.

Research in the United Kingdom found almost a million women left their jobs because of menopausal symptoms.

David Burton, an employment lawyer and principal at Mahony Horner Lawyers, said there was little legal protection for wāhine suffering symptoms on the job, so their best bet was workplaces adopting supportive policies.

"There's nothing really, besides the standard statutory rights of a minimum of 10 days' sick leave a year.

"That's probably all, at this stage, that women suffering severe menpause symptoms can access."

Burton said women should be able to feel comfortable speaking if their symptoms were affecting their work.

"My experience is that once the parties start talking about the issue, then there's ways to manage it and ways the employer can support the employee.

"The converse of that, of course, if there is that support there, the employees' performance usually improves and can be managed."

In the United Kingdom, the government's Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) has advice for employers on how to help support staff, such as switching to more flexible working hours or a more comfortable work station.

As the Omicron outbreak sees thousands of workers return to working from home, some might want a "duvet day" more than ever.

The Hello Cup menstrual company offers staff five of them every year, on top of regular annual and sick leave.

Co-founder and marketing director Robyn McLean said staff could cash one in for any reason, no questions asked.

"The idea behind them is that sometimes you just wake up and you feel like you need some time to yourself, a little bit of a rest," McLean said.

"You don't have to give a reason for why you're taking a duvet day, you know, you could just want to clean your house, which can help you feel more on top of life."

She said no one had taken all five days but staff feel supported, knowing they were available.

"To get the best out of your staff, you've got to show them the respect and care that you would like if you were the staff member and I think you get a better performance from your staff if you show them that you genuinely care."

McLean said the pandemic had made personal and professional wellbeing more important than ever and employers needed to be flexible to their workers' needs.

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