Jane Gebbie is increasing understanding of the menopause. Image: Amanda Kendal
Most women experience the menopause between the ages of 45 and 55 – in other words, while they’re working. Given that women make up more than 70% of UNISON’s 1.3 million members, it’s clearly a workplace issue and therefore a union issue that we should be leading the way on.
The menopause is a natural transition stage in most women’s lives, usually lasting between four and eight years, although it can be longer. It’s primarily marked by hormonal changes and the end of periods, which can also trigger a wide range of physical and psychological symptoms.
The menopause can also occur earlier for medical reasons and it also affects trans, non-binary and intersex people. In the workplace, the impacts can be exacerbated for disabled women by their disability and, for Black women, by racism and the prevalence of less secure working conditions among Black workers.
In 2017, the UK government’s equalities office published a review of the extent to which the menopause affects women’s economic participation.
It reported that significant numbers of working women experience problems at work as a result of individual symptoms, and added: “The evidence also paints a consistent picture of women in transition feeling those around them at work are unsympathetic or treat them badly, because of gendered ageism.”
For some UNISON members, menopause issues will cause difficulties at work and may even lead to discriminatory action by employers – so it’s something we need to start talking about before this happens. By agreeing good policies with employers, it’s likely that we can help reduce the number of cases requiring union representation.
Moreover, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development says that the menopause shouldn’t be regarded solely as a female issue. “Organisations have a responsibility to create a stigma-free environment that encourages open discussion and disclosure; this will encourage women to not suffer in silence and [to] discuss the practical steps needed to support their full engagement and productivity at work.”
TRACY Cunningham, a PCSO with Devon and Cornwall Police, says that the menopause made her feel as though she was having a nervous breakdown.
“I wasn’t sure what was going on. I was struggling to concentrate and work was all getting too much. My sergeant at the time was a very young man who I had to try and talk to.
“At first, I made up a reason for going sick, but soon realised I needed to tell him the real reason why I was off work. I sat in his office sweating and feeling like I was old enough to be his mother.
“He was struggling to understand what I was talking about so I suggested that he go home and speak to his own mum and ask her about the menopause!
“I went to my GP who was happy to prescribe HRT, which has helped a great deal.”
If Tracy’s manager had already had this information, things may have been easier. And so she’s now working with UNISON to share more information with line managers in Devon and Cornwall Police.
JANE Gebbie is the branch secretary for the Ysgrifennydd Cangen branch and, in recent years, has been heavily involved in work to spread awareness and understanding of the menopause and how it impacts on women in the workplace.
When she was 21 Jane discovered she had endometriosis. At 32 she had a hysterectomy and went straight into a medically induced menopause. The symptoms were so severe that she felt in danger of “stabbing people”, she says.
“I’m a residential care officer and work with the most vulnerable children in Wales. I was regularly restraining children, in very hot environments, so having a hot flush in that environment wasn’t brilliant.”
Fortunately, her staff were very supportive, offering the option to change shifts and writing a risk assessment – specifically for Jane – “to get me out of situations where I was going to get heated, to give me the extra five minutes to go and cool off.”
But the menopause is rarely a fleeting experience.
“I’m still suffering menopausal symptoms,” explains Jane. “But they have now made an HRT [hormone replacement therapy] that I am able to take, luckily enough, because it stops me feeling like stabbing people. The emotions were that intense.”
Jane first got involved in work on the issue via the Wales TUC, when it had just begun some research.
“Today we have menopause policies in line with our sickness policies in Neath Port Talbot – and it’s something that I’m raising in Bridgend as a council member.
“I keep promoting it wherever I can. I deliver awareness sessions and try to impress on people that not everybody’s experience of the menopause is the same – some can sail through it, but for others it can be particularly disadvantageous to work situations.”
Of the work she’s done, Jane says that, perhaps counterintuitively, “some of the worst reactions I have are from young females, who don’t believe that it’s going to have so much of an impact.
“However, some of the most surprising – and delightful – reactions I have in delivering sessions are from the men, who say they can see their partners, their mums or somebody suffering, but it was never discussed. It was ‘one of those things’.”
For Jane, that makes it all worthwhile. “The male managers are the most proactive in getting me into their workplaces to deliver sessions to all of their staff.”
Sessions are offered to non-members as well as members, “because we need to raise awareness across workplaces.” In one, at a school on an inset day, 50 people squeezed into a classroom. “I had people sitting on tables around the edges ‘cos they just wanted to be there.”
Jane is proud that her union is supporting and promoting this work across the UK. “The more we can raise awareness for various conditions, in relation to our health, the better outcomes we’re going to have in all our workplaces.”
UNISON has produced guidance for branches that includes a model workplace policy and is also developing training on menopause awareness.
To read more and access resources, visit www.unison.org.uk/menopause
Other information and support
NICE guidelines on ‘Menopause: diagnosis and treatment’
Women’s Health Concern
The Menopause Exchange
CIPD guidance: The Menopause at Work: a guide for people professionals