Throughout our careers, our life-shape changes and we can suddenly find ourselves needing a little – or a lot – of flexibility. This can be for many reasons.
Most people when thinking about flexibility immediately think of parents, usually mothers, and the need for flexibility around childcare. But this thinking is a little outdated and it’s increasingly recognised that anyone – both men and women – can experience either gradual or sudden changes in their life that affect their need for flexibility.
They may have other caring responsibilities, such as elderly relatives, personal development aspirations, life aspirations like charitable work, hobbies or travel, and some may also find their health will start to restrict, to a greater or lesser extent, what they are able to do both personally and professionally.
The menopause and all of the physical and emotional pressures it can bring is a good example of this.
Symptoms can include poor concentration, tiredness, loss of memory, depression or feeling low, loss of confidence, irritability, anxiety and hot flushes/sweats, and can range from very minor to very severe. The menopause usually affects women between the ages of 45 and 55, although it can occur earlier in life or last for longer. That’s potentially a rather large chunk of a woman’s career and puts into perspective how important it is for employers to recognise, understand and help women to manage this phase of their lives – not just for health and safety reasons but also because it makes good business sense.
According to the Faculty of Occupational Medicine, around 10% of women stop work entirely due to severe symptoms. So what about the other 90%? In some cases, symptoms are less severe but for the majority, they struggle on and try to manage the symptoms, whilst still trying to perform at work.
Given that there are around 3.5 million women aged between 50 and 65 in employment in the UK (significantly more if you count those that start the menopause in their 40s), we’re talking a huge and valuable chunk of our workforce.
So how can employers help women work through the menopause?
Employers need to understand the implications of the menopause and develop appropriate policies and procedures but that’s just the start. Unfortunately, it’s where some employers stop – and many don’t even start! So what else needs to be done?
A healthy employer/employee relationship is one that is based on understanding, openness, trust and respect.
Employers need to engender a culture of openness that starts at the top of the organisation and filters right through to all levels. Many women feel embarrassed about their menopause-related health issues and do not disclose their symptoms to their colleagues or line management. Without openness, discussion and a willingness to understand each woman’s individual needs, the menopause will continue to be a little-understood and largely ignored issue that will continue to cause stress and decrease productivity in our workforce.
A culture of trust and respect also starts from the top. Women going through the menopause haven’t suddenly lost their skills, experience, capabilities, professionalism or ambition… they often just need some flexibility to help them continue to work through it.
This can come in many forms and be a little or a lot, depending on the nature and severity of each woman’s symptoms. Flexible doesn’t just mean part-time, it can also mean a variation in hours, time in the office versus at home, amount of travel, level of responsibility, ability to leave the office suddenly if necessary… or even just the ability to access a quiet space or shower/wash facilities at work.
Making flexible working work
Quite apart from the need of women going through the menopause, flexibility is actually one of the top motivators at work in general and should be at the top of companies’ agendas for managing and engaging their employees. Motivated employees are more loyal, more committed and ultimately, healthier.
Here are our top five tips for employers, for making flexible working work:
1. Listen to each individual’s needs and be understanding – we are all human.
2. Ensure your managers are equipped with the right tools – policies, guidelines, training, frameworks for conversations, etc – to make flexible working work.
3. Be creative – how flexible can you be, so that you retain the skills and experience you need within your organisation? This may, of course, differ depending on the type of role, level of customer contact but broadly, most roles can accommodate some level of flexibility.
4. Create a rhythm to the working week and keep communication and feedback levels high, so that you keep flexible employees involved, on track and engaged, particularly if they work some or all of the time remotely.
5. Trust those that work flexibly. If you don’t trust them, you have an issue of trust… not an issue of flexible working! Judge people on the quality and timeliness of what they deliver, not the number of hours at the desk. We are no longer in the Industrial Era… one size of 9-5 at the desk does not fit all.