Why employers must treat menopause as a disability - Joanne McNeill

Last year I wrote a blog about menopause that was posted on my employer’s website

When most people think about menopause they imagine the physical symptoms like hot sweats and weight gain, but what many don’t realise is that there are also numerous psychological symptoms. Picture: iStock/PA.

I opened up about how until that point I’d blazed through life and work with confidence and bravado but then about how suddenly I fell down – because of the menopause.

It threw a conversation onto the table that hadn’t been discussed much previously within the organisation or outside.

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We all hear about menopause in some way and fortunately, the topic is starting to be discussed more in public. But in many workplaces, it remains one of those subjects that people whisper about or ignore and pretend doesn’t happen.

I have always worked. I did a paper round at 13, joined the police force at 16 and went to university at 30 before finding my profession in HR not long afterwards. I have seen things and dealt with tragedies that no-one ever should, and all of it made me the woman I wanted to be: strong, capable and confident. But that all changed when I hit menopause.

When most people think about menopause they imagine the physical symptoms like hot sweats and weight gain, but what many don’t realise is that there are also numerous psychological symptoms like anxiety, depression, problems with memory and concentration, I could go on.

My career took a massive step back for several years because of my lack of confidence, anxiety, sleep deprivation and memory loss – all symptoms of menopause that I wasn’t aware of at the time.

Despite numerous trips to see my GP, I wasn’t getting answers and it got to the point where I thought I was seriously ill or having a breakdown. I decided I needed to retire.

It led me to think that more organisations need to question why a woman can suddenly go from being a high-performing individual to someone who struggles in the workplace. Why a particular person may have what appears to be significant personality changes, increases in absence, anxiety beyond reason or total memory loss.

And I think workplaces need to treat it like any disability. Perhaps some women don’t want to think about menopause in such a way, but the law states disability is ‘a physical or a mental condition which has a substantial and long-term impact on your ability to do normal day-to-day activities’. For a lot of women, this is what menopause does.

What changed for me? Well, I started taking HRT, I got help through a great menopause support group and realised I wasn’t going mad; this was perfectly normal when going through menopause. I also got approached by Alpaca to come and work for them. They said they were flexible and supportive and I started to see the light again. It turned out I wasn’t ready to retire.

Now I have my employer’s support. Over the past four years, I have worked flexible hours and I can take what breaks I need during the day because I’m trusted to get the job done.

If I have had a bad night with little sleep there is no requirement for me to be at my desk by a certain time.

I feel comfortable sharing how I am feeling and sometimes it is enough to say ‘not a good day’. If my anxiety levels are high and I can’t find my voice, then it’s ok to take a step back. Most importantly I am allowed to be honest.

I’m so glad I found a company so supportive they’d let me post a blog about menopause on their public website. I’m lucky that my colleagues seek to understand what I’ve gone through. I just hope more organisations follow suit and that no woman has to go through what I did.

By Joanne McNeill - Head of People at Alpaca

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