Speaking up about the menopause – today and beyond

Today is World Menopause Day, and people across the globe are coming together to raise awareness of this natural transition that millions experience.

As someone going through the menopause myself, I understand first-hand how much it helps to be able to speak about it openly and honestly. Symptoms can include everything from fatigue and hot flushes to anxiety, insomnia and problems with concentration and memory, and for around a quarter of women, these symptoms have a severe impact on their day-to-day life.

It happens to around half the global population, yet the menopause can often still be shrouded in taboo.

Here at NHS England, we are working to improve the experiences of perimenopausal and menopausal women within our workplace, especially given more than three quarters of our NHS people are female.

Earlier this year, we signed Wellbeing of Women’s Menopause Workplace Pledge, demonstrating our commitment to create a more supported and informed working environment where women can feel comfortable and confident discussing the menopause.

Since then, we have partnered with the Wellbeing of Women charity and are jointly leading research into how clinicians can be encouraged to ‘think menopause’ when talking to their patients.

We are also continuing to work on a comprehensive package of support for both women and their colleagues and managers, including guidance setting out best practice and an e-learning module to help everyone better understand the menopause.

And one of the things we’ve already introduced is the ability for our staff to record menopause-related absence on ESR, which will help us understand better the extent to which symptoms are impacting women’s working lives.

From August 2021 to July 2022, over 350 instances of menopause-related absence were recorded across more than 80 NHS trusts in England.

While it will affect every woman at some point in her lifetime, the menopause can affect everyone differently.

For example, early menopause – defined as happening before the age of 45 – can be brought about by treatments for cancer, such as chemotherapy, through removal of the ovaries or premature ovarian failure and by some types of hormone therapy. People with some genetic conditions are also more likely to experience a premature menopause.

And it’s not just individual health that can be affected. The menopause can impact on careers and organisations, with many women leaving their jobs, reducing their hours or passing up promotions because of their symptoms and the lack of support in their workplace.

In fact, research shows that 59% of women in the UK say the menopause has negatively impacted them at work, and almost one million women have had to leave their jobs altogether.

This can’t go on. It is unacceptable that talented, ambitious and conscientious women across the country are being pushed out of the workplace because the impact of their menopause symptoms or a lack of support feels insurmountable.

Simply having a conversation about the menopause is the best place to begin. If you are experiencing symptoms, having a conversation with someone you feel comfortable with can be the first step towards feeling better supported and understood.

I want to recognise male colleagues here too, particularly those who have championed the focus on the menopause within the national retention programme. Men have told me their understanding and appreciation for female colleagues, partners and friends has increased and I am grateful for the action they too are taking to promote greater awareness of the menopause.

As employers, we can support by recording and acknowledging absence accurately and agreeing flexible working patterns or adjusting working conditions to make the office environment more comfortable.

And if you are a manager supporting a colleague through the menopause, try to approach conversations openly and recognise that everyone’s experience will be individual. Carefully consider any requests for reasonable adjustments and make use of information on supporting colleagues in later career to signpost them to resources, organisations and services if you think further support may be helpful.

For more information about the symptoms of the menopause and about available treatment options including hormone replacement therapy (HRT), head to the NHS website, and check out this self-care factsheet for tips on how you can look after yourself while going through the transition.

Photograph of Professor Em Wilkinson-Brice

Em Wilkinson-Brice is the Director of Staff Experience and Leadership Development at NHS England. Em qualified as a nurse in 1992 in Exeter. She was appointed to NHS England in September 2019 following roles spanning over 30 years in the NHS bringing clinical operational experience, working at executive level as Director of Nursing and Facilities at Derby Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.

Em returned to Exeter in July 2010 where she undertook various executive roles alongside the Chief Nurse role, including Chief Operating Officer, Deputy Chief Executive and lead for integration across Devon. In recognition of the close working partnership between the Trust and two local universities, Em was awarded Associate Professor Faculty of Health and Human Sciences at both Exeter and Plymouth Universities.

Em has a keen interest in people and workforce, health and wellbeing, staff experience and organisational culture. She led on responding to the national workforce challenges of Covid-19. Em remains a practicing nurse and has a Master’s Degree in healthcare management and became a Chartered Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD) in 2022.