This article first appeared in the November 2021 issue of PLC Magazine
Emma Lim and Jenny Clayton of Simmons & Simmons LLP and Kathy Abernethy of Peppy discuss the different ways in which law firms can support their employees through the menopause.
The days when menopause was considered to be a taboo subject in workplaces are becoming a thing of the past. Nearly three quarters of people experiencing menopause will have symptoms including hot flushes, sweating, tiredness, poor memory, concentration problems and bladder issues, as well as symptoms of anxiety, low mood and insomnia. Menopause affects 50% of the population. This is usually between the ages of 45 and 55, and with more women (as well as transgender and non-binary employees) working through menopause than ever before, it makes sense to be more open about it.
Now this hormonal change is talked about in the Houses of Parliament, on TV, in a plethora of high-profile books and across social media. This subject, which can be an isolating and sometimes frightening phase of an employee’s career, is being normalised. And this means that smart employers in the legal sector are making menopause education and support a priority among their workforce.
Pathway of support
As Kathy Abernethy of Peppy explains: “A menopause policy is not mandatory in an organisation, but a pathway of support is essential”. If someone is struggling with menopausal symptoms at any level in the organisation, the question arises of how they can get the support that they need. This can be
- managerial support
- reasonable adjustments to their work environment,
- or HR support such as flexible working arrangements.
But, employees need to know how to access it.
According to a recent survey by Willis Towers Watson, 37% of organisations are considering offering menopause support in their workplace in the next two years.
One law firm that takes menopause support very seriously is Simmons & Simmons. Since making great strides in increasing its female representation, the firm recognises the impact that menopausal symptoms may have on its employees’ working lives. Simmons & Simmons is committed to supporting women during this phase of their life, helping them continue to have a successful career and take control of their health (see box “Female talent pool”).
Starting the conversation
Making menopause a subject that employees are open to discussing can be a challenge. Jenny Clayton of Simmons & Simmons notes that: “As a starting point, we need to get people comfortable with the topic and continuing the conversation. When we hosted an event within the firm to discuss menopause, we had positive feedback from employees who had felt awkward mentioning menopause previously, even to HR.”
A key factor in normalising the conversation is making it widely available. For Simmons & Simmons, a virtual workshop was a really good starting point for getting the conversation going, followed by a smaller drop-in session for anyone who specifically wanted a peer-to-peer network. This created a confidential and open forum for individuals to talk about any support needed. It also helped the subject become normalised as a topic of conversation within the firm.
Keeping it flexible
Abernethy recommends sensitivity and discretion in order to establish a pathway to access menopause support within a law firm. The pathway needs to be sufficiently flexible that if employees do not want to talk to their manager they do not have to. This is particularly important for more senior employees, who may prefer discussing their feelings with an alternative manager.
To keep the conversation going, it is important to lead from the top. At Simmons & Simmons, a partner led its most recent menopause workshop. This makes sure that senior partners are engaged. If partners are open about their own menopause and how they are feeling, this will create a safe environment, giving other employees permission to talk about it. It is useful to have HR present in order to answer questions from an HR perspective and, if possible, a GP to answer any medical questions. It is important for employees to feel that they can talk to anyone in the firm about menopause. Be it their line manager, a member of the HR team or another partner; whoever they feel most comfortable with.
Discretion is key
Understandably, not every employee will want to be open about their own menopausal symptoms and how these are affecting their ability to perform at work. In Simmons & Simmons’ experience, some attendees will not say anything during the workshop, but this is absolutely fine. The most important thing is that they know there are people they can reach out to if they want to.
As menopause becomes a hot subject, stories of the legions of women who have had to leave good careers due to the effect of brain fog on their professional performance are both common and depressing. The pressure within the legal profession for lawyers to be able to stay on top of their game mentally is, of course, enormous. It is not a subject that tends to get discussed. But the danger is that brain fog could get misinterpreted as a performance issue, rather than a natural hormonal symptom. As Emma Lim of Simmons & Simmons advises: “HR needs to be both very good at picking up on this, and proactive about tackling it”.
The risk is when employees who are experiencing these symptoms try to manage them without asking for support. They may end up choosing to leave the firm or change career as a result of their struggles. It is far preferable that they discuss any concerns with HR at an early stage. Then HR can help to avoid this from happening. “We are hopefully creating a culture in which any staff member, whatever their level of seniority, can be open about what they are experiencing and can feel properly supported,” adds Lim.
Menopause support helps everyone
Menopause support in the legal sector will benefit everyone because it will help retain the female workforce, especially senior staff. Gender balance and age diversity can only be positive for the profession.
Menopause does not just affect those who are experiencing it directly. It also affects their relatives, friends, spouses, partners and colleagues. Furthermore, the working population is more diverse than ever. Menopause is something that employees typically go through later in life, although of course there are some people who experience early menopause (see feature article “Managing an ageing workforce: times are changing”).
As well as making the support pathway clear, Abernethy suggests that law firms consider making reasonable adjustments to the working environment for staff experiencing menopause. Small changes to their working conditions can really make a difference to managing symptoms better.
- Firms should consider the possibility of flexible working and whether employees can work from home.
- Adjustments in the office environment, such as sitting next to a window or in an air-conditioned room, or providing a desk fan, can make symptoms more tolerable.
The most important thing that the legal profession can do to support employees and colleagues through this phase of their lives is to remember that an employee going through menopause is not seeking help to solve their menopause problems, but to solve their work problems.
It is not necessary to know about or understand treatments; the main focus should be on supporting the employee at work.
Emma Lim is head of HR and Jenny Clayton is HR manager at Simmons & Simmons LLP, and Kathy Abernethy is director of menopause services at Peppy and former chair of the British Menopause Society.