M’s the Word – Breaking the Silence Around Maternity and Menopause in the Workplace.

December 10, 2018    Sarah-Jane Osborne     

The subject of women’s rights in the workplace has barely been out of the headlines recently as their experiences of discrimination and sexual abuse have been discussed more openly and honestly than ever before.

This discourse has, along with the increasing amount of data and research into the real needs of working women, brought several workplace issues to the fore. Maternity and menopause are two of the biggest events to impact on women’s professional lives, yet research suggests employers are still falling short when it comes to putting the right workplace behaviours, cultures and support systems in place. To address these issues, it’s necessary to understand how these life stages make women feel and the knock-on effects it can have for women as employees and businesses as a whole.

Research shows that more than 80 per cent of women start maternity leave unhappy in their work and lacking in confidence and more than one third feel so isolated when they return that they plan to resign. Perhaps this can be attributed to reported resentment towards pregnant women in some workplaces and companies’ concerns about whether pregnant employees will return or stay. Women report receiving little support during the return transition (90 per cent) and perceive a lack of flexibility and understanding from bosses and colleagues, with almost two thirds worried that requests for flexible working will be denied.

For the most part, women are still the major carers of children in the UK and as such are more likely to require flexible hours or part-time positions and are the ones that have to handle unexpected days off due to children’s sickness or problems with childcare. Greater support and flexible provision are more than just for women’s benefit though – it also helps to avoid absences and lapses in work continuity, both of which lead to reduced productivity and staff attrition over time.

If we turn our attention to the menopause, research published by the Department for Education, carried out by Leicester and Bristol Universities, stresses that employers must do more to support women and encourages the subject to be openly discussed, rather than in hushed and embarrassed tones.

Menopause can affect women in their 30s and 40s, although the typical age is 51. The need to understand it is becoming greater as 80 percent of menopausal women are in the workplace and this is set to increase as we work later into life. As much as 20 percent of an average woman’s working life is likely to be spent dealing with its symptoms and effects which can be unpleasant at best and debilitating at worst, spanning hot flushes, mood swings, memory lapses and a loss of confidence. With many women feeling unable to share their health concerns with employers for fear of reprisal, it’s not surprising that many choose to cope alone. In turn this can impact women’s wider mental wellbeing and productivity, as well as increase the likelihood of absences and reduced job satisfaction.

At a time when business leaders are concerned with how to improve productivity and extract more meaningful value from their employees, they must recognise the needs of a significant part of their workforce. Failure to do so is a certain first step to losing valuable talent and knowledge gained over decades, not to mention a significant step backwards in facilitating women’s contribution to the labour market.

One important way to address these issues is with a flexible workplace and an open organisational culture. Empowering people to choose how, when and where they work (within guidelines) can give all employees the ability to work around symptoms, childcare issue or difficult personal issues – whether it’s menopausal women, a man with care responsibilities for an elderly relative or someone dealing with mental health issues.

Certainly, for women dealing with a return to work after maternity or menopausal symptoms, flexible working can provide a lifeline and make it possible to maintain their professional contribution. Business leaders must support this further by ensuring that female health is factored into wellbeing policies, line managers are trained to recognise where support is needed, and women are encouraged to discuss their health needs openly.

Flexibility is an expected part of the modern employee experience and with a proven link between flexible working, wellbeing, productivity and staff retention, employers should harness its power. All employees will have changing needs throughout their professional lives, but in the interests of keeping women in the workplace in particular, it’s important to recognise two of the most challenging times in their lives.

Employers that openly talk about health issues of all kinds and create a culture of support which values the individual, will create a homogenised, inclusive, engaged and happier workforce, where individuals’ needs can be accommodated rather than shunned and create an employer brand to be proud of.

The message is clear: flexibility is not just a requirement for the modern employee, it’s a necessity in order to recognise and maintain women’s valuable contribution in the workplace. For employers focused on unlocking greater productivity, performance and retention of the brightest and best, it’s time to discuss the M word.

To find out more about how to create workspaces that engender positive workplace wellbeing and productivity, download our whitepaper “Workplace wellbeing: The clear business benefits of taking good care of your staff.”

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