Creating a menopause friendly workplace

Anne Saxelby is HR Adviser, Projects, Organisational Development, Human Resources at The University of Sheffield    
International Women’s Day (IWD), 8 March 2020. #EachforEqual, was the IWD theme and this provided the ideal springboard to launch our new programme of activity aimed at ensuring that all staff at our University received the same opportunities to flourish, regardless of age, time-of-life changes, gender and/or family circumstance. Our IWD event included an interactive awareness session for all staff, delivered by Henpicked, menopause in the workplace experts. This launch session proved a great success, so what could possibly go wrong? 

Of course, a few days after our celebratory launch a national lockdown began and we, like all HR and many other colleagues across the sector, were faced with supporting almost our entire workforce to work from home. Reacting to the pandemic’s challenges soon became the norm with staff wellbeing issues moving front and centre. So, continuing the menopause programme of work as soon as we were able very much fitted with this approach.

Creating an inclusive place to work and study, progressing gender equality, and particularly our ambition to eliminate the gender pay gap are key objectives underpinning our work programme. One of the important strands of this work was our ambition to create a menopause friendly workplace. The menopause is a natural part of aging for women and usually (although not always) occurs between the ages of 45 and 55. While some women do not experience (m)any symptoms, others can experience severe or even debilitating symptoms which may have an impact on their working life or may cause them to stop working altogether. At Sheffield 46% of female staff are aged between 40 and 60 and we felt there was a need to ensure a level playing field for all, including staff who may be experiencing menopause symptoms. 

Our ambitious goals ranged from the practical support we could put in place through to the culture shift needed to eliminate the ‘taboo’ of menopause. Tackling this taboo includes encouraging conversation around the menopause and empowering staff to openly discuss their circumstances with managers who are equipped with an understanding that will enable them to take real action to support colleagues to be successful in their role despite the challenges the menopause may bring.

The University’s Gender Equality Committee Chair, Professor Katherine Linehan, has been a powerful sponsor of our work. Having a senior leader to support and challenge the planned activity and then to promote and endorse it has been key. We all worked together, learning as we progressed. This included recognising that the symptoms of menopause are not felt exclusively by women, so creating a supportive environment for all staff regardless of gender, was always a priority. We also now know that there are many different factors that can impact on how someone experiences or perceives menopause, for example disability, age, race, or religion, may all contribute to how menopause is managed and experienced. This is why it was so important to find out about the range of experiences amongst our diverse staff community. We held a series of focus groups and sought feedback from our staff networks and trade union colleagues. Despite the remote working and challenges, our staff have shared stories and circumstances, and have volunteered for continued involvement, providing feedback as the work progresses.

Their contributions allowed us to develop our online menopause hub – with separate toolkits for staff and managers. The toolkits set out the support the university can provide to reduce the impact of menopausal symptoms at work and include useful resources including templates and checklists to aid conversations, risk assessments, a comprehensive list of example adjustments or environmental considerations, advice and information based on NHS guidance and best practice and signposting to other sources of support.

Whilst many of the themes that emerged from the focus groups were addressed within the toolkits, we knew this in itself wouldn’t go far enough, for example in relation to 
  • the lack of effective support and advice from GPs;
  • the need to connect with / seek peer support; and 
  • the psychological and emotional challenges of menopause which can have a greater impact at work than the physical symptoms, and these tend to be the things people want to keep hidden for fear of others thinking they can’t do their job. 

This led to our partnership with Peppy - an innovative app-based solution which gives staff and their partners free access to expert menopause practitioners, providing a mechanism for practical as well as emotional and mental health support. We’re incredibly proud to be the first UK University to launch this specialist support, which has been hugely successful with almost 300 staff members signing up in the first four weeks, and over 100 joining the launch webinar with Peppy’s Director of Menopause Services, Kathy Abernethy. 

Early feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, with staff saying this step has further supported them in feeling more empowered to talk about their symptoms with their managers, colleagues, GPs and friends. Or, as one colleague put it: 

“All my interactions have been great. Like talking to a (highly qualified) friend! "

We are well aware that there’s still work to do and our ongoing planning includes awareness raising and knowledge building, especially amongst managers, to increase understanding and confidence to drive supportive conversations about what will remain a sensitive subject for many. We’ll also continue to find every opportunity to talk about menopause to normalise the subject and encourage those who need support to speak up.  

We hope our actions will continue to support those experiencing menopause symptoms and provide important steps in our university’s efforts to progress gender equality and improve staff wellbeing. We hope we make a significant difference to the experiences of our whole University community, but even inspire other organisations to create a more inclusive working environment. If you would like to find out more, please do feel free to get in touch with us or one of our partners.