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Battling menopause in the workplace

Battling menopause in the workplace

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The menopause can be a difficult time in a woman’s life. Dr Laila Kaikavoosi, Founder and Clinical Director at OMC, tells us more about it, how it affects women in the workplace and how employers can best support their female employees through this period.

In The Annual Menopause Report 2022, carried out by the Online Menopause Centre, (OMC), 48% of women questioned admitted the menopause/perimenopause had affected their job, with those working in professional roles most severely impacted (71%).

Only 14% of those questioned discussed their menopause/perimenopause symptoms with their employer. The most common reason for not speaking about it was they didn’t think their employer could help (29%). Other factors included not thinking their employer would understand (21%), being embarrassed (11%) or fear of demotion/losing their job (6%).

Needless to say, the menopause is an important topic in the workplace and should be openly discussed. We spoke to Dr Laila Kaikavoosi, Founder and Clinical Director at OMC, for more insight into the menopause, the stigma surrounding it and how employers can support their female employees.  

Can you introduce yourself and your job role?

I’m Dr Laila Kaikavoosi. I’m a GP and medical specialist and founder and clinical director at the Online Menopause Centre (OMC). The OMC is the first registered clinic in the UK to work as an online clinic specifically for menopausal and pre-menopausal women.

What has your career looked like so far?

My career has been slightly unconventional after going through very conventional and formal medical school training. I’ve done postgraduate training both in the UK and the US and my career has evolved with me as a woman. In the last 10 years, I have been seeing more menopausal and peri-menopausal women and that sparked an interest, leading me to find out more about it and what was happening to this group of women.

What would you say is your most memorable achievement so far?

My most memorable achievement has to be setting up the Online Medical Centre because I am very passionate about looking after menopausal women and I could see that when you give them time and discuss different aspects of their care, it really could improve their quality of life. But with a lot of menopause specialist clinics being based in London, it was not always easy for women to take time off work and travel. I set up a service that was more accessible, more convenient and more affordable. So, to achieve that and execute it has definitely been the highlight.

What have been some of the benefits of the clinic being online and some of the drawbacks?

Being an online clinic, it provides convenience for women as they can get bespoke, personalised care from wherever they wish. It’s also less expensive because they don’t have to take time off work and don’t have to travel. So, I think the convenience of it and the accessibility are positives. But I’ve always also enjoyed being in the same room and physically seeing my patients so it has taken me a little bit to get used to being fully online.

What is menopause and what are the common signs and symptoms?

Menopause means the cessation of the menstrual cycle and is diagnosed when a woman has stopped having menstrual cycles for 12 months. The average age of women in the UK is 51, but the range is anything between 45 to 55.

The symptoms are wide-ranging, it can cover anything from the head to the toes. Some of the main things that women can initially experience are a lack of focus and concentration. She can get a foggy brain, headaches or migraines can get more frequent or more severe, and she can experience skin irritation or new rashes. She can also get hot flashes and night sweats – these can also cause palpitations or rapid heartbeat. Other important symptoms include lack of sleep, weight management or urinary problems, psychological problems like anxiety, low moods and irritability. Every woman’s experience of this time is very different.

How does the menopause affect women in the workplace, psychologically and physically?

As I said, the age range of women going through menopause is around 45 to 55, which is usually when they’ve reached the peak of their career. These are usually very well-read and informed women at higher positions in their careers. And, of course, if this woman has not had a good night’s sleep, if she’s flushing and having sweats and forgetting things more than usual, and if she can’t focus or concentrate then this can all negatively affect her workplace.

A survey found that about 75% of women who have symptoms say that their symptoms negatively affect their workplace. This is not a topic – the menopause – that usually is commonly spoken about in an office, so it’s difficult for women to openly talk about it, say ‘I’m going through a difficult time right now, I just need to step out and have a glass of water.’ She just has to carry on in silence. Women going through the menopause can feel quite fuzzy and unclear in the head, as well as feeling very fatigued and very irritable. All this, the taboo around the subject, the symptoms and the lack of support in the workplace can really affect a woman’s work and the quality of it.

What are the gaps between the menopause transition and the workplace/labour market?

There are some physiological changes, like pregnancy, that are very well-spoken about in the workplace. Rightly, workplaces have policies in place that can help women through this time and can support them, whereas with the menopause, there isn’t at all. It’s just recently we are speaking about it more openly. Employers and workplaces don’t actively support these women and talk about it – those formal policies and support systems are not available. The menopause is not a very attractive subject to talk about because it’s part of the ageing process, which is seen quite negatively, especially in the workplace.

What is the common response from co-workers and employers about the menopause and how can these attitudes directly impact female employees?

I see lots of women, who are in executive and managerial positions, and they say that they don’t talk about the menopause and there isn’t a support system in place. I ask them, ‘Have you spoken to anyone at work?’ But they often tell me, ‘Well, who do I speak to?’ We need to create a clear communication path between the employee and the workplace.

There are a couple of companies that I have seen that have a formal policy for the menopause, and within that, they have also started raising awareness in the workplace. For example, they’ve started giving some lunchtime webinars that are open to all employees to attend. They also have a ‘Menopause Champion’ – a non-medical person within the workplace team that has been designated as the first point of contact for these women.

We, at OMC, have set up structured and formal training for workplaces, as well as raising awareness for executives and line managers. I’ve also spoken to employers who’ve admitted they wouldn’t know how to approach it. ‘How would you speak to someone like that without offending them? Can I say, oh, I can see you’re having a hot flush, or you’re not your usual self? Shall we speak about it? Can I point you in the right direction to get help?’ So, in regard to the menopause, there’s anxiety for employers as well.

How can women be better supported in the office, both by employers and the government, when experiencing this transition?

Hopefully, one day, the UK Government will catch up and have policies around the menopause. We have specific laws for equality, diversity and for health and safety at work. There have been several cases against employers, where these laws have been used to cite discrimination against employees, and they have been successful. So, employers can also protect themselves by creating these menopause policies, which not only helps them but their employees, too.

What measures can employers take to ensure a positive environment, one where the menopause is openly accepted and talked about?

The first thing is to have that easy and simple line of communication. Also, have a ‘Menopause Champion’ within your team, so it is communicated that this is the person you turn to for information. The ‘Menopause Champion’ has to be a person who is interested in the topic and is interested in listening to women and increasing their knowledge about the menopause.

The next step would be to have a structured policy in place and that it is distributed amongst all members of the team. So, everybody’s clear that if you’re going through menopause or if your colleague is going through it and you see her struggling, you point her in the right direction: you tell her that here’s the confidant that you can speak to and here’s the company’s policy on it.

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