How have unions led the way on the menopause?

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The menopause has become a fashionable topic to talk about. Women of the 90’s who were called ‘ladettes’ by the media - famed for falling out of clubs, are now speaking on every platform about hot flushes, insomnia and anxiety brought about by the menopause. 

Yet behind this new-found celebrity culture, union reps have been working diligently on this issue for years, often dubbing it ‘the m word’ – the word almost guaranteed to dissolve line managers into a puddle of embarrassment at its mere mention.

But it doesn’t have to be like this.  The menopause is a natural process for women and people who menstruate.  Women make up 51% of the population and this generation are amongst the first to work at this intensity, with this many hours and as many responsibilities.  As people live longer, they are rely on younger family members to care for them as they age, working parents rely on grandparents for childcare and larger mortgages means that women are now working later and longer into life.  Often this sandwich generation of women will be juggling all of these roles and so when the menopause hits, it can feel insurmountable. 

The sleepless nights bathed in sweat and anxiety don’t make for a comfortable day in work.  The PPE that protects workers from Covid is hot, badly fitting, uncomfortable and bothersome to remove so the predominantly women workforce who require it, try to drink and go to the toilet less just to carry out their duties.  Disabled women face the unsure interaction and side effects of hormonal treatment with their other medication and younger women going through the menopause are often dealing with the stigma, coupled with grief for the type of family they thought they may have had, or with intense pain from operations or treatments that have caused the menopause.  This is before we even consider the structural racism that prevents Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Women from accessing proper treatment, or the transphobia that denies that the menopause is even an issue for trans people.

So what have unions been doing on the menopause?  In Wales, if you work in the devolved public sector, you are protected by workplace policies – the only country in the UK to have such an agreement.  This is in stark contrast to research carried out by Wales TUC 6 years ago where fewer than 5% of workers believed they were protected by workplace policies.  Whilst policies are often accused of sitting idly on a shelf gathering dust, they can often be a start for more proactive action such as:

  • Unions have negotiated paid leave for women to attend peer support menopause cafes.   
  • Unions have collectively bargained for pay parity and to close the gender, ethnicity and Disability pay gaps which all create the inequality leading to poorer health outcomes. 
  • Unions have negotiated reasonable adjustments for women who need to avoid the stressful morning commute as tiredness, anxiety and fatigue impacts on day-to-day life.
  • Unions have campaigned for workers uniforms to be made out of more comfortable and cooler natural fibres rather than hot and sweaty materials.
  • Wales TUC has also developed courses on the menopause, from the 10 minute e-note to raise general awareness to the two day course which teaches you how to negotiate and make a difference for those going through the menopause
  • Trade Unions in Wales have also have worked with the Welsh Government to raise awareness on the lack of compulsory training that GP’s have on the menopause, or indeed on women’s gynaecological issues and a Parliamentary bill later this month on the menopause has been directly influenced by work by the Wales TUC.
  • You’d also be surprised how hard unions have had to fight just to get water, fans and ventilation on the agenda, let alone clean and accessible toilets. 

But if this all sounds abstract, the real developments are those which happen at the heart of our workplaces.  I once delivered training to a group male reps who started the training looking like they were trying to find the nearest black hole to swallow them up in.  By the end of the two hour session they were fully engaged and planning their motions to their Conference. 

A few weeks later one of these reps contacted me for advice on how to represent a woman who was being badly treated at work - her boss was making her take annual leave for the hysterectomy she had just gone through and she was on her final warning for taking too much sick leave.  The woman had an unblemished record, wanted to remain at work and had clearly been badly affected by the menopause. 

I worked with the rep and his union and a few weeks later he contacted me again to say that this woman was now being reimbursed for all the annual leave she had been forced to take, had a new pattern of working with reasonable adjustments in place and her record had been cleared.  She was delighted, the rep was delighted and I was delighted because in too many cases women have left work without feeling supported or protected and without knowing that union reps were in their corner with them. 

So if you are a union member, join us in developing our menopause campaigns and help us become a menopause friendly country.  We owe it to a whole generation of women.