Employers need to do more to “normalise conversations” about the menopause in the workplace, say experts.
The comments came after a BBC survey found 70% of respondents did not tell their bosses they were experiencing symptoms.
Some firms have brought in menopause-specific policies but experts said for many it was still a taboo subject.
GP and menopause expert Louise Newson said it was a “silent issue for too many organisations”.
The menopause is when a woman stops having periods and is no longer able to get pregnant naturally as oestrogen levels decline.
It usually affects women between the ages of 45 and 55 and includes symptoms such as poor sleep, hot flushes, anxiety, and poor memory.
Experts said employers did not necessarily have to make costly adjustments, but changes such as flexible working or having a desk fan could be helpful.
Professor Amanda Griffiths, a psychologist specialising in mid-life and older people’s health and wellbeing at work, said: “Employers can help by communicating to their workforce that health-related problems such as the menopause are normal.
“I have heard of cases where women have not admitted the cause of their problems until matters have reached disciplinary stages at work.”
She said organisations could access online guidance and advice on the issue from the Faculty of Occupational Medicine and also from trade unions.
‘Stay at home’
The BBC survey asked 1,009 women aged 50 to 60 how their experience of the menopause had affected their work and relationships and what their symptoms and treatment were.
The poll, by Comres for BBC Radio Sheffield and Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, found 70% of women did not make their employer aware they were experiencing symptoms, while nearly a third said they had not visited their GP.
Nearly half of respondents said the menopause had affected their mental health, while a quarter said it made them want to stay at home.
Former Nottingham Police chief constable Sue Fish was responsible for introducing the force’s menopause policy.
“I was horrified to find out women were leaving early because of the severity of their symptoms.
“Some had been rebuffed by line managers or they’d chosen not to talk about what they were going through.
“It was such a waste of all that talent and experience that these women had in serving the public.
“Bringing in a policy was absolutely the right thing to do. Talking about it helped build a culture of openness.
“I also had my own experiences of the menopause to draw on and I talked about it very candidly.
“There was me, at the top of an organisation making difficult decisions, and I didn’t want anyone blaming those decisions on irrationality. It was quite a challenge to overcome.”
Ms Newson works with West Midlands Police and the fire service to give advice and support on the menopause and its impact on work.
She said: “Is enough being done to address it in the workplace? No. It’s still a silent issue for too many organisations.
“We don’t talk about the menopause. We don’t get taught it at school and it’s not standard to learn about it in medical training either.”
She added: “Things are improving but there needs to be much more openness and understanding not just from employers but doctors as well.”
An ageing population and an increasing number of women in the workforce means in the future there will be a higher proportion of working women at menopausal age.
A similar study is being carried out at Kings College London in collaboration with the University of Nottingham, looking to improve the menopausal experience for working women.
Dr Claire Hardy is the lead author. She said: “It might be possible to make some adjustments at work, things like having a desk fan, or moving to a desk that is near a window that can be opened to cool down.
“Or even having some flexible working. The woman might have been having difficulty sleeping so having a later start to work might be feasible for some women, or just to miss the rush hour as well.”
‘Thirty years behind’
Employment lawyer Jenny Arrowsmith from Irwin Mitchell said greater openness in the workplace would help women feel supported.
She said: “Just as many employers now have a stress policy, some employers have brought in a menopause specific policy which provides guidance for managers and reassurance for employees on how menopause related issues will be managed and what support is available.”
Professor Jo Brewis, who authored a government report on the issue, said: “I feel like we’re 30 years behind where we should be.
“The menopause needs to be normalised in the same way that it is standard to talk about pregnancy.
“Every woman will experience it differently so there is no one-size-fits-all solution.
“Not all women will want to talk about it at work and that is fine. The main thing they need is understanding and flexibility and an awareness that the support is there if needed.”