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18 Oct 2021
by Dawn Lewis

Menopause and fertility: no longer standalone topics

Menopause and fertility have not always been seen as acceptable topics for workplace discussion. Yet in recent years the impact of these issues in the workplace has been increasing, with an estimated 14 million sick days lost to the menopause alone.

 

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Now, we have reached what feels like a critical tipping point where workplace gender health needs to not only be recognised, but also addressed.

Last week REBA, together with AXA Health, welcomed reward, benefits, wellbeing and diversity, equity & inclusion specialists to a breakfast event to discuss workplace gender health, with a particular focus on menopause and fertility.

Why this, why now?

As competition for skills and experience gains momentum, employers are recognising that supporting women and their networks through life events such as menopause and fertility helps them to attract and retain key talent.

More women are now in senior positions at the point that they are reaching the menopause, and this is having a dual effect. On the one hand, senior women are in a much more powerful position to affect change in their workplace and to make it more inclusive for those experiencing menopause. Second, losing women due to a lack of understanding and flexibility is a major business risk.

A similar risk can also be seen among those going through fertility treatment. If employees feel unsupported they are more likely to move employer, or even change career.

Ultimately, inclusivity is at the centre of this shift. Employers need to be inclusive in their gender health approach to ensure that it includes same sex couples and lone parents, and takes account of the many different ways that families can now be formed. Likewise, although fertility and menopause are usually associated with women, it is vital to remember men. As one delegate put it, “100% of people go through the menopause,” be it through personal experience or by supporting a partner, family-member, friend or colleague.

For employees who are experiencing fertility issues – regardless of their gender – the mental strain of supporting a partner undergoing treatment, and the highs and lows that accompany it, can have an immense impact on an individual.

Although supporting employees’ physical and mental health is undoubtedly a big driver behind this shift, the gender pay gap also needs to be considered. By retaining more women and supporting them through these periods in the lives, employers will be in a better position to close the gap and also create a more diverse cohort of people at the top of the organisation.

And finally, Covid-19 has of course had a role to play in accelerating all of the above, as we have become more accustomed to discussing personal issues in the workplace.

What employers are doing to better support gender-related health

During the breakfast debate, delegates heard from employers that were at various points in their journey in terms of implementing workplace gender health support.

For many, the starting point is listening to employees’ needs and ensuring that line managers are able to be empathetic to employees’ situations. Although training and awareness raising was seen as a positive intervention, it was also acknowledged that line managers cannot know everything and so, in some organisations, line managers’ empathy and ability to signpost is a key form of support.

The session also revealed a number of other ways that employers are supporting their employees through initiatives and policies, including:

  • Menopause and fertility support networks.
  • Gender health events, featuring webinars to raise awareness and understanding among the whole workforce about these issues, as well as highlighting available support.
  • Utilising role models, such a senior leaders and men, who have experience of these challenges, to help drive engagement with the topic.
  • Ongoing communication to build inclusive and safe cultures where employees feel able to have conversations around fertility and menopause.
  • Publishing guides and toolkits around these topics to help with information and support – both for employees and employees’ partners.
  • Policies/commitment statements (the latter is designed to be more flexible as everyone’s experience of menopause and fertility is different) to enable adjustments to dress codes, improvements to welfare facilities, time off for appointments and more flexible working hours etc.
  • Introducing an annual personal day for anyone to take for any reason.

There are also lots of employee benefits that can support those experiencing menopause and those going through fertility treatment:

  • Understanding what, if any, services and support the employee assistance programme provides.
  • Many private medical insurance (PMI) policies can now include a range of support for menopause and fertility. For menopause this can include enabling access to specialist GPs, and one-to-one sessions with menopause specialists. For fertility, support can range from fully-funded fertility treatment, through to providing access to consultations at fertility clinics.
  • There are also lots of specialist providers in the market that can support employees.

Understanding the broader wellbeing impact of menopause and fertility was also a key issue raised among the delegates. During both of these life stages people’s mental health can be detrimentally impacted and that applies to both men and women. Fertility treatment can also cause financial hardship, with different NHS rules applying in different parts of the UK. Some couples may have very limited options within the NHS and so have to pay privately for treatment, which can lead to financial strain.

As a result, it’s important that any policies, educational sessions or benefits, also include support for mental and financial wellbeing. But ultimately it again comes back to giving people time, space and empathy.

The challenges

Despite all of the available interventions, in some organisations there may still be some resistance to introducing these types of policies. International organisations have additional challenges due to the taboo nature of the topics, as well as the role of the line manager in some cultures. As a result, because fertility and menopause are difficult to roll out across multiple jurisdictions, often nothing gets done in any country, with senior leaders pushing back against introducing measures to support fertility and menopause.

This was the case for one of the speakers who worked for a large construction firm, where there was scepticism about the need for such benefits. However, she argued that by emphasising the business case and the potential risks, leaders and managers were gradually swayed.

Part of the message is also about communicating the realities of experiencing menopause and fertility treatment – there are several misconceptions around both – and so part of changing employees’ and managers’ perceptions lies in good communication and education.

But, as with many other benefits, there are of course challenges around communicating and delivering them, particularly where the workforce is dispersed or working set shift patterns.

The delegates concluded that there is no clear-cut answer to this problem, and it will often be down to the organisation and, in turn, line manager discretion, which again makes the case for ensuring they are supportive and onboard with any policies on these issues.

The topic of the moment

The reasons why employers must now address gendered health in the workplace are compelling, and the opportunities for both attracting and retaining staff are clear. As REBA’s director Debi O’Donovan stated in her concluding speech of the day: “This is no longer a standalone topic…and changes are coming together to make this the topic of the moment.”

The author is Dawn Lewis, content editor at REBA.

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In partnership with AXA Health

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