Having a ‘menopause champion’ in every workplace would be beyond patronising
The M word (finally) became a hot topic in 2021. Belatedly, politicians, policy-makers, major employers and TV companies finally woke up to the fact that half of the population — women — will experience something called the menopause.
The changes their bodies will go through will not fall into a simple set of symptoms. Menopause, at its worst, can result in ‘brain fog’, forgetfulness, insomnia and ghastly irritability.
Plus night sweats, excruciating headaches and unexpected hot flushes — the list of potentially embarrassing and exhausting side-effects connected with this hormonal change is long, and every woman’s experience is different.
I was relatively lucky, in that I was simply grumpy and in a bad mood for two years, then went on HRT (hormone replacement therapy) — but I know of many who had a truly terrible time.
Dr Heather Currie claims every workplace should have a ‘menopause champion’, someone women can go to for advice and support (file image)
You may wonder then how the menopause, given its potentially severe impact on a woman’s life and career, has been our Big Secret for so long?
In the past, working women just got on with it, phoning in sick occasionally and rarely discussing the intimate details of their suffering with others.
Yet now, experts claim every workplace should have a ‘menopause champion’, someone women can go to for advice and support.
The woman behind the move, Dr Heather Currie, a former head of the British Menopause Society, said it was in employers’ interest to do more.
And while nobody wants to go back to the dark days of menopause being taboo, I’m not entirely sure a ‘champion’ is the solution any of us need.
Apart from giving sympathy, what else can these champions realistically offer to make life for a menopausal woman more bearable? Flexible hours? Job sharing?
And would any woman seeking promotion be taken seriously by a (mostly male) management board if they knew she was being helped by a Menopause Mentor? The men in competition for that position would be outraged and no doubt moan about favourable treatment and positive discrimination.
Of course, when I started working as a journalist in my 20s, not one famous woman ever owned up to going through the menopause at all. It would have been seen as a sign of feebleness. Career suicide.
Janet Street-Porter (pictured) asks apart from giving sympathy, what else can these champions realistically offer to make life for a menopausal woman more bearable?
One could hardly imagine high-profile women such as Maggie Thatcher, for example, phoning down from the flat above No 10 to say she would be spending the day in bed because of hot flushes and a crippling headache?
Thank goodness those days are over and modern society encourages frankness, emphasising the benefits of discussing subjects which were previously taboo — anxiety and depression, and fluid sexual preferences, as well as periods and the menopause.
There’s a World Menopause Day, a menopause parliamentary committee, magazines, podcasts, radio and TV programmes devoted to demystifying the subject.
On ITV’s Loose Women, we’ve held regular debates on the subject as it’s one the vast majority of our viewers relate to — and have experienced.
As women have come forward to share their experiences, men are beginning to wake up to the fact that partners need extra support and understanding — even 76-year-old Rod Stewart confessed recently that he hadn’t realised how much his wife Penny was suffering and spoke out in favour of menopause classes for men.
In fact, the idea has already been taken up by South Tees NHS Trust, and no doubt more will follow.
The NHS should (funds permitting) do more to educate and include men, but should the Government intervene in the workplace to help menopausal women by setting out guidelines for employers? The Civil Service has drawn up a workplace policy, but what about food factories and small businesses? Can they afford more rules and regulations?
Throughout the year, two government committees, as well as the Department of Health and the Minister for Employment have been asking for evidence to help formulate female-friendly policies.
Janet said every time a woman takes extra time off she could be blighting her promotion chances, and might be seen as unreliable, selfish (file image)
But let’s not delude ourselves, the main reason for this interest in our health and wellbeing is to help employers get more out us.
It’s estimated that 14 million working days a year are lost to the menopause — days when women phone in sick and often make the time up later.
But should women experiencing pain and debilitating medical conditions really have to make up their hours, or fib about why they are unable physically to come into the office? Of course not. Often these missing hours are replaced at the workers’ own expense, when you could argue they are experiencing a medical condition.
Every time a woman takes extra time off she could be blighting her promotion chances, and might be seen as unreliable, selfish.
Women of menopausal age are an increasingly important part of the workforce. Women make up 70 per cent of local government employees, with three-quarters of their workforce aged between 40 and 64. So making sure these workers feel supported throughout the menopause should be a no-brainer for any boss.
But could this specialised support, such as the new suggestion of menopause champions, while well-meaning, cause resentment among colleagues?
Janet said the Department of Health must do a lot of work to encourage GPs to prescribe HRT more willingly than in the past (file image)
I commend other practical steps such as the private members’ bill introduced by Carolyn Harris MP, which has recently had its second reading and which will drastically reduce the cost of prescriptions for HRT, which doctors now agree has negligible links to cancer, but which can ease your passage through the menopause years.
HRT will help many — but not all — women, get through the menopause and continue working and socialising as before by reducing discomfort and alleviating the worst side-effects. The new law will see us pay for one prescription a year, not once a month, saving more than £200.
But it only applies to England, and the Department of Health must do a lot of work to encourage GPs to prescribe HRT more willingly than in the past and stop shilly-shallying around and coming up with feeble reasons why a woman over 50 should not take it.
Women are working longer and finding more joy in the process. We are occupying more and more managerial and executive positions. But appointing a ‘menopause champion’ in every workplace seems patronising to say the least.
For once (and I never thought I’d write these words), Rod Stewart is right — education is the key to better understanding. It’s taken a long time, but finally the menopause has been included in the school curriculum, along with sex education. At least the next generation will be better informed, and hopefully more sympathetic.
Janet admits that she can see all the pitfalls of special treatment for menopausal women, while claiming all they really want is understanding and sympathy (file image)
As a former boss, no employee ever came to me to talk about the menopause.
I tried to be as flexible as I could when people asked for leave or variations to their working hours, whatever the reason — but when you are editing newspapers to a deadline, or producing live TV shows, it’s not always easy.
So I’m not sure I would have welcomed a menopause champion. Especially considering that the people experiencing debilitating symptoms might not have jobs which could be shared with others, they might not be able to work from home, they might not want special treatment.
I would have asked all the staff — not just female — to write me emails and suggestions about what they would like to do to help menopausal women.
Because although women might be the majority in some workplaces, men must feel part of the solution otherwise it will not work. And why should menopausal women get more time off but not women with small children who are having to spend a fortune on childcare? Or a parent with a special needs teenager?
In truth, almost every worker will have moments when they are absolutely torn between doing the best for themselves and performing their job.
I can see all the pitfalls of special treatment for menopausal women. All they really want is understanding and sympathy, not more flexible rules which others will resent.