Pay and career progression experiences of women aged over 50 in Scotland: research

This report presents the findings of a qualitative exploration of the pay and career experiences of women aged over 50 in Scotland. It also makes recommendations for improvements to workplace practices to better support this demographic. The work was commissioned by the Fair Work Convention.

Chapter Three: Views on health and well-being in the workplace among women and employers

3.1 Women's views and experiences of working arrangements

What were the working arrangements among the women in our study?

The women in our study worked a variety of hours: nine worked full time; four worked a four-day week and two worked a three-day week. One woman was on a zero hours contract, working typically less than 10 hours a week, while one woman was retired but had worked full time until her retirement. The woman on the zero-hours contract had opted for this arrangement as she wished for maximum flexibility in her hours.

Around half of the women that we interviewed had always worked full time, while around half had worked part time in the past – this was almost always during the period when their children were young. While one woman reported having had a job share arrangement when her children were young, none of our interviewees had a job share now, or were planning to in the future.

Except for the woman on a zero-hours contract, all the women had set working hours that did not vary from week to week, although some women started work early and finished early (for example, working 7am - 3pm or 8am – 4pm).

Four women that we interviewed worked a shift pattern, and these were all call centre workers. Two of these shift workers worked for a communications company and worked a four-week shift pattern, which included one week of finishing at 9pm and two days of working at the weekend. The other two call-centre workers worked for an insurance company and had a choice of either a six- week or a 12-week pattern. They were also required to work weekends although there was some flexibility possible for those who could not work weekends. These two women did not work beyond 6pm.

Among those women working full-time, many expressed a wish to reduce their hours now or in the future. For these women, the biggest barrier to going part-time, however, was personal financial concerns. In addition, five women stated that they did not think their job would be possible to do part-time, either because of the workload or because their employer rarely offered these opportunities to people.

3.1.1 Women's experiences and views on flexible working

Call centre workers had the most rigid working hours of all the women that we interviewed. The call centre workers at the insurance company, for example, said that they were allowed two, ten-minute breaks and a half-hour break for lunch. They reported being allowed to take these breaks when they wished, as long as they were "sensible" about it, as one woman put it. They could be denied breaks at certain times if the lines were very busy. They were also allowed "personal time" which was time to, for example, go to the loo or to rest if they were feeling unwell. This personal time was monitored by their line manager. As stated later in the report, one woman used this personal time to help her when suffering with hot flushes due to the menopause.

At the communications company, call-centre workers found there was less flexibility in when they took their breaks. They were also allowed additional "personal breaks" although this was strictly capped at a certain number of minutes per hour.

All the call centre workers reported disliking working weekends, as it meant they often missed out on opportunities to spend time with the family. However, workers at the communications company were able to use "flexi time", so that they could work longer hours on some days and then take a day off to compensate. For some women, this was vital, such as for Claire, who used this time to avoid working at the weekends, so that she could care for her mother (see Section 3.3.2).

Claire also noted that there had been a change to shift hours recently so that you did not have to start at 8am if you had worked until 9pm the night before. She had found these hours particularly gruelling, which she connected to her age:

It's now three weeks of early and one week of late...definitely for the better, because before we used to work until nine o'clock one day and start at eight o'clock the next and it was just, it was awful….It works a whole lot better now, yes, I suppose maybe at an age that, eight o'clock starts, five of them on the bounce, and by Thursday… I'm [tired] but it's so much better now, to finish at nine o'clock and start at eight o'clock the next day, that's just crazy.

Claire, 54, call-centre worker

Another woman at the same company, however, found these new shift hours difficult because it meant having to commute on public transport after dark in the winter:

They brought in these new hours, introduced Saturdays [and evenings] as well… The late would be 12:00 to 8:00. But yeah, I preferred having every weekend off, and evenings to yourself….I don't drive, so coming out of work at nine o'clock at night, it's dark and I walk home. So, yeah, I don't think the safety aspect of it is very good, and like other people are hanging around for buses and stuff. So, yeah in the winter months it's not great.

Mary, 56, call-centre worker

In contrast to call-centre workers, the women that we interviewed with the most flexible hours were those that had agreed on their hours as part of their negotiations when joining the organisation. Moreover, these women had all obtained their jobs through existing social networks, rather than through formal application processes. For example, Amanda had retired at 60 years old from the public sector with the intention of not returning to work. However, she was asked by a friend to come and help with administrative work at her financial services firm. Finding herself "bored" during the COVID lockdown, Amanda agreed, on the condition that she could have a zero-hours contract:

I think I felt [the zero-hours contract was] more flexible. In my job we had a lot of staff that worked zero-hours contracts with young children and they really liked it, they liked to be able to say no when it didn't suit them….So I kind of liked that ability that when somebody phoned me up I could just say no. Even if you are tied into certain hours a week you have to do them.

Similarly, the two women we interviewed that worked three days a week had left their existing jobs in a bank and a financial services firm respectively, with the hope of improving their health and reducing their stress levels. Both were then asked by former colleagues if they would join new organisations and both agreed, again on the condition that they could work part-time during hours that worked for them. One of these women had been planning to retire early, while another had been planning to leave the financial industry all together to open a dog-walking business.

Interestingly, both these women had struggled with their hours in their previous workplace: one woman had worked compressed hours at a bank but found that people would still request her to work on her days off. The other woman worked four days a week but also found that colleagues did not respect her day off, for example when booking meetings or setting workloads. These women did not experience these problems in their new workplaces and they cited part-time and flexible work as a key reason for their satisfaction in their new jobs.

As part of our employer research, we also interviewed a woman over 50 who had recently left a senior position in a large bank. In explaining her decision, she cited the fact that her part-time hours had become unsustainable due to the expectations of her colleagues and bosses. She had gone from full time to a four-day week when her first grandchild was born and when her daughter began to experience mental health problems. Yet this woman found that her colleagues and managers constantly required her to work on her day off, until she eventually sought employment elsewhere.

Several other women that we interviewed had flexibility built into their contract – flexibility that they greatly appreciated. For example, one woman had recently been recommended by their employer to consider working compressed hours, so that she could move from a part-time contract to a full-time contract but work longer hours each day, thus allowing her to still have a day off. This would allow her to still have a day to help her daughter with care of her grandchildren, while increasing her pay in preparation for retirement. Another woman, who had suffered serious health problems in recent years and who frequently worked above and beyond her contracted hours, had recently been told by her employer that she could take time off in lieu. She described the relief at this decision, especially considering that this woman felt unable financially to retire prior to 67 years:

I've had an appraisal and, in that appraisal, they've actually instituted me getting time back. I nearly wept with relief at that, not just because of how much that will help me, if I can make myself do it, but secondly, to me, that represents the realisation they've made that you can't just expect to go like the Duracell bunny…it did actually happen before but it fell by the wayside, different managers came in and they didn't see to it.

Elizabeth, 62, content editor, media production company

To summarise this section, therefore, our research suggests that women over 50 often seek out flexibility and part-time work where possible and, moreover, that they use this flexibility to manage concerns about their health or well-being, as well as to manage their caring responsibilities to others.

3.1.2 Women's experiences and views of home working

The women that we interviewed expressed mixed sentiments about working from home. Many women stated that they found working from home lonely, and they felt that they lacked support from managers and other members of the team. At the same time, most women saw considerable benefits in home working, such as: not having to commute; being able to balance work with commitments at home; being able to look after their pets; being able to focus better on their work; and being able to manage their own time better. Two women also commented that it helped them manage their menopause symptoms.

Going forwards, most of the women that we spoke to were either choosing to stay at home from now onwards, or they were required to spend some time each week in the office, and some time at home. Most women were happy with these arrangements. However, for those women who had to return to the office when they did not wish to, this could be a source of considerable unhappiness:

I burst into tears yesterday when I got told, my acting boss is lovely and she just said "I'm really sorry", I've got bad news and I thought oh god no, she said "we're going back in", oh no, when is this happening… I just got emotional thinking about it. We've got a lovely little kitten as well, she's seven months old now and it's like we're going to get separation anxiety…It's just going to be horrible leaving her alone. I think just the uproar of getting dressed every day, getting dressed before you leave the house and just trying to organise it all and hopefully not making my husband wait for me when I finish, just things like that. I can always put a wash on at lunchtime and hang it up, little things, just silly, little things that it's just great to be working from home to have.

Deirdre, 58, project manager for an internet provider

For some women, their wish to work at home was so great that it affected their decisions around moving or staying in jobs. For example, one woman left her job and applied for another role within the same internet company so as to avoid having to work in the office when her manager decided to remove her home-working entitlement and to relocate her whole team to an office in Glasgow. Another woman reported that, despite very much wanting to move jobs, she did not think she would be able to find another office job that was entirely based at home and, therefore, she felt it was best to stay in her current position.

3.1.3 Women's experiences and views of travel

Travel was another key theme in our research, with women frequently citing it as a key factor that determined their decisions around work. One woman, Lindsay, who took early retirement from a large bank in her mid-fifties prior to the pandemic, stated that sudden changes in requirements to travel were one of the various reasons why she no longer felt able to do the job:

I've worked in two different offices in Edinburgh, and then I came back to Dunfermline and worked here, and again, just before I handed my notice in, they said, "Oh now you're going to have to go back and work in Edinburgh every day," and sit in the traffic, and I was like, I can't do this, and they were like, well, yes, "you're going to have to". There was no thought behind it.

Another woman who had been a senior manager for the same bank similarly reported finding constant travel to London stressful, particularly when her son was young. She subsequently also left the bank, to take a part-time job at a small bank with less pay and less responsibility:

I was forever flying up and down to London, that was another problem. I've always flown up and down to London, for one stage of my career it was every week, which is really draining, especially when you've got a young child, and you feel guilty that you're not home and you're missing out on stuff. I'm very lucky that my parents helped out, and had a very good nursery as well, but there was always that guilt trip there, but it was a case of, well you need to be in London, you've got to manage your team, and you've got to be seen by senior management. So, I played the game, shall we say. But I was quite happy with COVID, because it meant I didn't need to go down to London every week.

Sandra, 52, former senior manager at a large bank

Susan, a 58-year-old director in a financial services company, also stated that the need to travel was one of the reasons she left her old job, although she noted her general discontent in the job made the travel more of an issue:

And that was the other thing, you couldn't work from home either, you had to be in the office. And that was a commute for me, and that was wearing … it sounds really weird because I'd been doing it for nearly 20 years, but it just … sometimes little things just build up, don't they? I mean, I commute now, when I do go into the office now, it's a commute that's twice as long as the one I had before, and actually more awkward, but I don't notice it to the same extent, because I don't mind, I don't go in that often.

Crucially, some women also cited travel as a reason for not applying for new jobs or for promotions. For example, Denise, a 55-year-old HR officer at a large bank, was aware of a new job opportunity in the bank that would require frequent travel around the country. She stated that this requirement to travel was the primary reason for not applying for the job.

By comparison, Deirdre, a 58-year-old project manager working for an internet provider, was recently offered the opportunity to work as a trainer – a job that she described as something she "wanted to do years ago". However, she was adamant that she did not want to travel, and thus could not accept the position, as she described:

Recently, one of the managers asked to sit with me on the phone, we'd done a few team calls and he asked for a week to sit with me, he was down in England so not sit with me personally but went through what I do all day. He said you would be an amazing trainer, he said because you've taught me an amazing amount in the past few hours and explained it well, he called me back and said would you be willing to maybe train some of the new recruits. I said I would if it was over the phone but I wouldn't be prepared to travel down to London and things, I just wouldn't be prepared to do that, he goes that's a shame because I think you've got it, I thought that was really nice of him to say that, but I said no… I don't want to be travelling, it's not for me, I'm a home bird.

In a slightly different example, Catherine, a 60-year-old woman working in financial services, had been offered what she saw as a demotion in her previous job because she was hesitant to undertake a lot of travel. She explained, first, how the company had insisted on returning to frequent travel during periods of reduced restrictions in the pandemic, even though – in Catherine's mind – online meeting with clients were working well. Catherine also pointed out her willingness to travel had reduced as she got older:

In previous roles I've had an awful lot of travel and I don't know if it's a combination of COVID, age and everything else and other responsibilities, but I just don't want to do that level of travel anymore.….Then again, maybe I've shot myself in the foot, in my thirties, I would have done that, because it was like, yes, okay this is what I have to do to get on, but I'm now at the stage, actually, we've already proved that we can work remotely and do all this perfectly well, the clients are perfectly happy, why are we pushing back?

Eventually, Catherine's employer offered her a new role, which carried less responsibility, because of this unwillingness to travel:

The last, I suppose new role that they put on the table for me, which was last summer, was because we hear that, we know that you might not want to travel now, as things are…What was being offered on the table was a pure inside support role, just literally taking telephone queries from clients every day. Not quite a call centre, but it was dressed up as you can use all your experience that way and that would be really, really good. I thought that's not actually using the skills and experience that I still think I've got, years in Financial Services….Whereas I'd done the job perfectly well for four years, good appraisals, pay rises, and everything, so, it wasn't that I was rubbish at the job, but all of a sudden they had this business need.

When Catherine was then recruited by a former client to work for another financial services company, she asked as part of the interview process for a three-day week with home working, which she was granted.

3.2 Views on working arrangements among employers

3.2.1 Flexible working and home working: views among employers The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic

Almost all of the employers that we spoke to reported a significant shift in their approach to both flexible working and home working due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While many of them had had some form of flexibility or home working prior to the pandemic, they all reported a change both in the frequency and extent of these practices within their organisations, as well as in their attitude towards them. One managing director called this a "paradigm shift", while another stated the "culture of presenteeism is officially over". The advantages of home and flexible working for employers

Employers generally claimed that not only had employees proven themselves to be trustworthy and equally – if not more – efficient at home, but also that there were significant benefits to home working for the organisation. Many employers reported making considerable savings on overheads, as well as on travel. Some employers reported being able to service more customers due to reductions in travel, while others reported widening their 'talent pool' as they were able to recruit from a wider range of geographical locations. One employer noted that flexible working allowed them to provide more out-of-hours services to customers.

Some of the employers also stated explicitly that more flexible working had meant they were able to recruit more women to roles, particularly women with young children. Furthermore, one employer, a financial services company, reported that this new approach to flexibility had also allowed them to employ more women over 50: in recent months, they had taken on three new employees, all women over 50, and two of whom explicitly stated in their interviews that they would only work from home, and three days a week. The managing director was clear that it was unlikely that these requests would have been granted prior to the pandemic, partly due to operational concerns that they had now resolved, as well as due to a general prejudice that home workers were somehow less productive. Plans for post-pandemic working arrangements

For most organisations, flexible working largely meant a degree of flexibility in terms of start times and end times, so that employees were allowed to work, for example, any time between 7am and 7pm, or 8am and 8pm. Some of the smaller companies did not set any hours for their staff but just required that work was completed by the relevant deadline. Some employers also reported increasingly offering compressed hours to some staff, as an alternative to reductions in hours. Employers saw no reason for these sorts of working arrangements changing in the future.

As pandemic restrictions have begun to ease, the majority of the organisations that we interviewed are considering a hybrid model, with employees spending typically two-three days a week in the office, although some organisations have chosen to continue to allow staff to work entirely from home.

The only organisation that we spoke to that wished staff to return to the office full-time was a communications company, who had recently made large investments in improving their workplaces. The HR manager for several call-centres stated that the company wished for these buildings to be used and therefore was requiring a high attendance of call-centre workers in the office. Furthermore, this communications company also demonstrated fairly limited options for flexible work among call-centre workers. He reported a system of flexi-time which – as shown in our interviews with workers in this company – allows people to work extra hours and then take time off. The HR manager noted, however, that such requests are usually only allowed when the phone lines are very quiet, so flexible working can never be guaranteed.

The HR manager also noted that it is difficult for call-centre workers to change their shift patterns quickly, as this requires an internal process that typically takes up to six weeks. He reported that he hoped to change this process, as the long period of waiting can be very difficult for people who require a change due to a sudden change in personal circumstances, such as in their health or in their caring responsibilities.

3.2.2 Part-time work: Employer views and approaches

How did employers in our study view part-time work?

Most of the organisations that we interviewed stated that they were open to part-time work, although the percentage of part-time employees varied considerably between organisations, with some organisations having over a third of their staff on some form of reduced or compressed hours, and others having over 90% full-time staff. For those companies that did have part-time employees, these arrangements were most commonly 0.6 FTE or 0.8 FTE contracts although one organisation also employed people on 0.4 FTE. Generally speaking, however, arrangements below 0.6 FTE were seen by employers as more problematic and less likely to be granted.

Most organisations stated that part-time work primarily suited and was used by women with young children, although several employers also stated that some of their older male and female staff members appreciated part-time work.

Employers described the benefits of part-time work primarily in terms of their capacity to recruit or keep talented workers who might otherwise go elsewhere. Two organisations also recognised that allowing part-time work at senior levels was useful in improving diversity at those levels.

The disadvantages of part-time work were primarily seen in operational terms. The director of a media production group – the one employer whom we interviewed who did not have female employees over 50 – stated that he would be concerned about how someone in his industry could manage the workload on a part-time contract, as he described the work as "all-encompassing", "stressful", and driven by non-negotiable, external deadlines.

The HR manager of a financial services company stated that part time work can be an "operational nightmare", while the HR manager of a consultancy social enterprise stated that they do struggle to "balance personal requests with business needs", although it is noteworthy that both organisations did have a substantial number of part-time employees and stated that most people's requests were typically granted. The financial services company noted, for example, that 25% of their equity level partners worked part-time. Notably, in the cases of both these organisations, the primary operational problems were to do with providing consultants to external companies who required full-time staff.

Finally, there was one exception to these findings on part-time work. This was the communications company that we interviewed. We interviewed the HR manager responsible for call centres, who was open about the fact that part-time work has traditionally been viewed negatively by the company. While existing workers could reduce their hours once in place for specific reasons, the company did not yet hire call-centre workers on a part-time basis. However, the Scottish branch of the company is planning to trial the introduction of part-time work. The HR manager thought that introducing part-time work would have benefits for the company, primarily in terms of allowing them to widen their talent pool. The concern around part-time work, however, was mainly to do with training, as full-time recruits require six weeks to train before starting work on the phones. The company was concerned, therefore, about the time period spent on training when employing part-time staff. Concerns also existed, however, about part-time managers, given that the company prefers managers to be present for a majority of a team member's shifts. The HR manager felt that this lack of opportunities for part-time managers meant that managers were predominantly male and that, moreover, the company was missing out on a "huge talent pool" of female workers.

3.3 Women's caring responsibilities

What were the caring responsibilities among the women in our study?

Three of the women that we interviewed reported that they did not have, or had not recently had, significant caring responsibilities. For the remaining 14 women, however, caring responsibilities were a central part of their life outside work. Moreover, many reported having or having had responsibilities for several different people at once. Women typically reporting having responsibilities for grandchildren, siblings in poor health, and elderly parents. While none of the women saw their spouses or partners as in need of daily care, they did often cite their partner's poor health as a reason for wanting to reduce their hours or retire.

3.3.1 Children and grandchildren

A small number of the women that we interviewed had children who were finishing school or who were at university. For these women, the primary responsibilities towards their children were financial, rather than everyday care. These women typically saw their children as a reason to keep working, rather than to reduce their hours. Grandchildren, however, were a much more common reason for women wanting to reduce their hours. One woman, for example, had spent two years in her early fifties working four days a week and spending the fifth day looking after her one-year-old granddaughter. Two other woman reported similar arrangements, whereby they either dropped their hours or compressed them, so that they could spend a day per week caring for a grandchild.

Other women reported that they had not been involved in daily childcare duties, but that they did often care for their grandchildren at weekends. Some women also had to travel long distances to see their grandchildren. Women saw this as a priority, and they wanted to ensure that their work lives did not impinge on their capacity to make these journeys. For those women who had to work weekends, such as call-centre workers, this could be a source of discontent in their work. Barbara, for example, described her sadness when she was not allowed the day off to visit her new-born granddaughter:

It's been a problem over the years because it has been, because if you're working at weekends, you miss out on things. [When my granddaughter was born], I came into work, I said "it's a wee girl". I couldn't believe it was a wee girl. That was all I ever wanted…The office said no. They said I am working my Saturday and I couldn't go up in the afternoon to visit her.

It is also worth noting, however, that some women found looking after their young grandchildren tiring, and stated that, if they reduced their hours, they did not want to spend all their free time looking after their grandchildren:

I had to give that up, at the same time, although I love my grandchildren dearly it was nice to get a bit of me time back. It's nice to have a bit of time to yourself rather than having to watch the grandchildren. I wouldn't mind doing it for a little while but the children tend to take it for granted, you'll watch the grandchildren… I find it quite tiring and it meant because I was working the other four days, okay I wasn't working weekends and I had a Wednesday off but that was taken up with childcare so I couldn't do anything that I wanted to do, personally. I felt as though it kind of took up my full day, and it was from early in the morning till, I mean she was dropped off about half seven in the morning and didn't get picked up till about maybe six o'clock at night. So, it was quite a long day and as I say, I wouldn't mind doing it again but maybe a bit less and maybe not for two years this time, maybe just for a year or so.

Lesley, 56, call-centre worker

So, I didn't want to go part time on the basis that I have the children every Monday and Friday, because the whole idea is to have time to myself and I've just come back from my first line dancing class. So, the crazy woman that I am, I'm trying all these different things

Catherine, 60, financial consultant

3.3.2 Elderly parents and siblings

While many women saw looking after their grandchildren as either optional or as a source of joy, responsibilities for elderly or unwell parents could be a greater source of stress for women in their fifties and sixties. 12 of the women that we interviewed reported having commitments to parents. Some of these parents needed extra support with routine activities due to their age, while others were suffering from serious physical or mental health problems. While less common, some women also reported looking after siblings when they were in poor health. For Lindsay, who had not worked since leaving a large bank in 2019, her caring responsibilities for her elderly parents meant that she could not see herself being able to work full-time:

We now have the added pressure of my parents who are elderly, they live forty miles away…We go out and do things, like we had to take my mum to the hairdressers last week, just so we could clean their house, because they've both got really bad arthritis, you walk in and it's like oh my God, when did they last hoover? So, when you said about working full time or part time, I don't think I could work full time, because…I'm now responsible [for them]…. My sister did live round the corner from them, and we used to think, she's having us on, they can't be that bad. Until now, we've had to take over, and it's like, oh my God and we come away from there, we're exhausted. But there isn't anybody else.

The following quotes also illustrate both how the nature and type of caring responsibilities varied between women, but also how these responsibilities were not just physically and materially demanding, but also emotionally demanding:

[My sister] moved into the house next door, just before she found, she found a lump the day she moved in, unfortunately. So, she fought cancer for four years, so, I was with her to go to the hospital, and meet the oncologist and go for scans and stuff like that. Yes, my mum and dad live next door, they took over my sister's house and my mum can barely walk, so, I pop in there, it's a godsend that they're next door, I pop in there every day and make sure that she's okay, and my dad, I keep an eye on him as well, they're both seventy five, so, I keep an eye on him, make sure he's alright, because I think COVID really impacted both of them, from a mental health perspective, they weren't going out. My mum still doesn't really want to go out, my dad, well, will play pool and snooker, he has his dominos, so I make sure he gets his lift with the dominos, so, yes, I've got the responsibility there.

Sandra, 52, bank worker and former senior manager at a large bank

I used to have my elderly parents, I used to have to help look after them. My mum didn't keep very well and unfortunately she actually took her own life about five years ago. So, I had all that to deal with as well outside of work, my mum was not in a good place. My dad had had a few strokes and she used to help look after him and then when he died, she just went what the hell. But you just had to get on with it, that's what I mean, you just had to get on with things. I suppose everything hit at once, like the change of life and my mum's suicide and [my daughter] was going through teenage angst and all that as well, my husband got paid off, all these things have happened in the past ten years. You can't divide yourself into any more bits, so sometimes it's the career that has to just take a hold.

Deirdre, 58, project manager for internet provider

Yes, she has really, just recently, it's a big long story but she and like my step dad got married when I was 23, and it's just within the last 18 months, it's came out that it's been mental abuse that she's been going through. So, I had her living here at the start of last year and she's just recently got a new wee flat, and just like a couple of miles down the road, but she's in a much better place now. But again, that was hard, trying to get her through all that and it's still not finished, the house is still up for sale and whatever, so, that still needs to be sold. But just hearing her stories that she's gone through, it's awful and she didn't want to burden me with it and whatever, but it's just sad.

Claire, call centre worker, 54

Unfortunately, my mum was quite seriously ill and I lost her the next month…I suppose it's all those extra pressures that often fall on a woman, I do have a brother, but he didn't have the same sense of duty in terms of looking after mum. It was always, right okay, I'll finish at, I can't get away early, because it was a contract, it was really fixed, you do x number of hours, you have to have y number of cases done in that day, you have to have this level of score, you have to have this, you have to have that. So, some nights I'd be crawling out of there at nine o'clock at night, because I've had to stay that late to get a target….so, it was like, so, for a good few years, until I lost her in 2015, yes, it was all trying to juggle round her and keep it all going.

Catherine, 60, financial consultant

Many of these women had required some level of adjustment to their working hours in order to manage these caring responsibilities towards their parents. In comparison to women's experiences of health issues or the menopause, it is noteworthy that women who did request help largely found their employers to be supportive when they needed time off or to change their working hours:

My mum and dad are still living, my mum and dad are 85 and 86, so, in a way, the carer side of that, but at the time I had a very good business manager and she said no problem at all, she changed it all. I still work the Saturday, because financially I couldn't drop it. So, eventually when I could drop it, I actually got the Wednesday off, without having to work it back on a Saturday. That was it. That was easy enough to get. [Also].. there was an incident, where I had to use family leave….my dad dislocated his hip, getting out a taxi…they couldn't move him…there was no problem with my getting time off, they were really good with things like that, they will let you off.

Barbara, 65, call-centre worker

My [former] work was very good about that, my boss, he was very good and I think that's down to, he had his own personal issues… he understood, from first-hand experience that people need time off. No, he was very good....He was, I would say he was the exception to the rule. So, I've heard stories of other people not having such sympathetic bosses, but he was very good.

Sandra, 52, bank worker and former senior manager at large bank

Probably my big day that I don't like working is a Saturday, because I'm not really a carer for my mum, but mum's going through a whole change of life situation within the last year. So, like, Saturdays are a good day for me to get her shopping and whatever, so…I'll do the flexi and take the Saturday time off, so, my flexi time, I build that up and then I take that on a Saturday.

Claire, call centre worker, 54

When ... my dad died five years ago, but ... well, he had cancer, but then he was diagnosed with dementia, and like that. My manager at that time, she was great, she ... because we were on the shift patterns at that point, I got early shifts so I could go and help, and yeah she was great. She was really very, very good, yeah...But yeah, at that time, yeah, it was great and I got loads of support like that. They changed the shifts really, just like that, immediately and I got special leave if you had appointments and stuff like that. And, when he got taken into hospital I got special leave. So, they really were very good with me at that time. [My mum] still lives…so I go up there and stay, normally two nights a week, and I help out there, and take her out on my days off, and stuff like that. So, yeah, I do that as well.

Mary, 56, call-centre worker

3.4 Women's experiences and views on their health

How did women in our study describe their health?

10 of the women that we interviewed reported health issues that affected their experiences at work, or that had done so in the recent past. These issues ranged in severity from relatively minor discomforts to more serious issues such as cancer, auto-immune disorders and strokes. Two women also stated that they had suffered from "burn-out", leading to mental health problems that required time off work.

3.4.1 Experiences of poor health in the workplace

First, it is important to note that health issues contributed to women's wishes to retire or to reduce their hours and/or experiences of stress at work. Similarly, the ability to have time to look after their physical and mental health while still working was important to women, and contributed to their sense of satisfaction in their job. For example, Sandra, who left a position as a senior manager at a large bank to work part-time hours with less pay and less responsibility at a small bank, talked about how much the change in job had improved her health, so much so that she was hoping to stop medication for her Type 2 diabetes:

I had a new lease of life, with these new [part-time] hours, cooking different things and baking, I've really enjoyed it actually, instead of the rushed ready meal when you get in or something from a takeaway. So, we're eating healthier now, it's a pity I had to leave my job to do that, to look after my health…because that's another factor actually that my health deteriorated. I've been diagnosed with diabetes, and I do blame that on work, just eating rubbish every day, not having time to exercise and all the rest of it, but hopefully, I'll be back off the tablets soon enough. So, having time for me has been the biggest factor… Yes, it's great, I don't start until ten o'clock, so, I can go for a swim, go to the gym, then start work, it's brilliant, absolutely brilliant.

Sandra, 52, bank worker and former senior manager at a large bank

Catherine, by comparison, had left a previous job to work part-time and at a home for a different financial services company – a move that she described as moving "sideways" in terms of pay and responsibility. She described how her concerns about her health had contributed to her decision, particularly given the pandemic. She also talked at length about how happy she was that she now had time to exercise and to relax:

It's only in recent years…[working] did my health. I was getting into a cycle, that literally once a year, I would end up with respiratory infections…. [But now] I think possibly because it's the work life balance and maybe with COVID, I realised that yes, I could be home of an evening, I could go out for a walk, I could actually get some, like my own mental health a bit better, I could, so, I have silly things. I've taken up adult ballet, I now run regularly, none of those things seemed to be possible, with a job that was taking me to the ends of the earth…I enjoy this idea of switching off, going out and it's not because I'm going out partying, it's just like, yes, I can go for a walk. As I say this class this morning, was a new class that's just started, I thought I'm going to go and have a look, yes, I've been twirling and everything this morning [at a line dance class]. Support from employers with health issues

Two women felt that their employers had been largely supportive with their health issues. One woman noted, for example, how her line manager was "totally understanding" and rang her "every few weeks" during her 12-week leave to check that she was ok. This same employer also gave her access to a free meditation app, which she found very helpful in managing her mental health symptoms. Another woman who suffered from "tennis elbow" stated that she appreciated that her manager and the occupational health team at work were very quick to provide her with new computer equipment to reduce her discomfort. Several other women noted that they originally come back on a phased return, which they had found helpful when transitioning back from long-term sick leave.

However, many of the women that we spoke to had found that the support provided by their employers was temporary or limited. For some women, they were granted the time off that they needed, but they felt that line managers were not sympathetic or understanding of their difficulties. For example, an HR officer at a large bank described to us how she suffered from a serious respiratory virus, a cancer diagnosis, and debilitating menopause symptoms all within the same time period, resulting in several prolonged periods of sick leave. She described how she felt that these problems were not taken seriously by her managers at the time:

So, I was run down, I'd been off with that, came back, got this [virus], I was off for a further three months, came back and then I got my cancer diagnosis and was like, for God's sake. Ironically somewhat ironically, I had male managers at that time. The reason for saying that, because I remember one of them, I remember the conversation very distinctly, because I was just like crying all the time and of course, "Alistair, are you married?" and he was like, "Yes," "See when your wife's got PMT," I was crying, I was bawling my eyes out, "That's what it's like for me all the time, and I don't know what to do?" They must have thought what! And the other young guy, he was nice but dim, he basically said to me, "So, if it wasn't for the cancer, would you have come back earlier?"

Denise, 55, HR officer for large bank

In another example, a call-centre worker was asked by her manager to provide a doctor's letter to explain why she had to take frequent trips to the toilet, something that was the result of her blood pressure medication:

One of the managers we had for a bit, said to me, "Why are you always nipping to the toilet?" I said, "I just have to go to the toilet, it's my age, I cannot help it." …she said, "I need a doctor's letter." I said, "What for?" "To say why you're going to the toilet." Because this time it was high blood pressure tablets or something, I'm not ill. My sickness is good, I'm never ill, touch wood. Anyway, I said, "Why do you want a sickness letter?" "So, you can say." I said to her, "I'm not getting it." She said, "You need to get it." I said, "That's fine." She said to me, "Did you get it?" I said, "No," I said, it was a lie, I said, "No, it's going to cost seventy pounds, so, if you want me to get it, you give me the seventy pounds and I'll get it." …I never heard another word about it.

Barbara, 65, call-centre worker for insurance company

By comparison, other women reported being denied adequate working arrangements or sick leave in order to manage their illnesses. Two women reported, for example, that their requests for reduced hours were either denied, or took several months to approve. Another woman who worked for a large communications company, and who suffered from long COVID, said that her employer was initially supportive but then threatened her with "termination" procedures if she did not commit to a return date:

Like that ... I'm just back at work, I've been off for six months with long Covid… At first [they were] very supportive, but then it was like they wanted ... well, this was another thing, the manager, so two weeks at half shifts doing training, when I'd already told her I was struggling. And, then the third week back online, and I said, well that's just not going to happen, it's just far too much for me. And, then, yeah we got into a bit of a, well, not an argument, well a difference of opinion about that, and then I got my second line review with the centre manager, and he was ... he just more or less said, well, if you can't give us a date for coming back it will go to resolution. And, I said, what is that? Oh termination.

I thought, my God, I've been with you for 28 years, and it's meant to be a supportive meeting to get you back to work. And, I thought they'd say it themselves but. So ... and I know they're under pressure as well to get people back to work, and stuff, but it doesn't make you feel the best.

Mary, a 56-year-old call centre worker

Finally, it is worth nothing that some women felt hesitant to ask for sick leave, even when needed, in case it created problems for them in the future at work:

So, I didn't want to be on long-term sick a couple of times, or take sick leave a couple of times because sometimes it triggers something with the HR system, and it happened to my husband once, and he had to go through hell to get it removed. It was not his fault. So, that was quite some time ago but I think maybe that was in the back of my mind because I thought, well, if I have this foot surgery, I am going to have to be off for months, a couple of months probably. So, that never happened.

Jill, 60, administrator for internet provider

In a further example of this reluctance to talk to managers, another woman developed a health condition which required her to be near a toilet at almost all times, although she did not share this information with her employer, instead asking regularly to work from home rather than taking sick leave. She emphasised, however, that she had not told her employer why she wished to work from home. She was eventually reprimanded by her boss for the amount of time she was working from home.

In sum, the women in our sample generally found employers to be more supportive with short-term health issues or crises, than they were with longer term problems. Moreover, our findings also show how women may fail to disclose health conditions to employers. The following section on the menopause reports similar findings.

3.4.2 Women's experiences of the menopause in the workplace

How were women in our study impacted by the menopause?

Our research illustrates how the menopause impacts women in very different ways. Four of the women interviewed reported having had mild and manageable symptoms during the menopause, while three women had yet to experience any symptoms at all. However, the remaining 10 women that we interviewed described the menopause as having had a profound impact on their physical and mental health, and their personal and work lives. One woman referred to the menopause as "a deadly silent thing", while other women described their symptoms as "horrendous", "horrific", "awful", "really debilitating" and "like a madness".

The most troublesome symptoms for these women, particularly in relation to work, were hot flushes, brain fog, fatigue, mood swings, uncontrollable crying, anxiety, depression, and heavy bleeding and pain. These symptoms presented particular challenges for women in their everyday work lives and were associated with difficult emotional and interpersonal experiences. For example, many women talked of feeling embarrassed when experiencing hot flushes in the workplace, particularly in front of colleagues or customers:

You know and then the other thing as well is when you get the sweats, and you sit there at work and I could almost, sometimes you would get them when you didn't want to get them and would always be when somebody comes over to you and the next thing is I could feel a line of sweat and you could see, you don't know if it's you but you think are they, you could see their eyes go down and it's like, your hands are dripping.

Caroline, 50, project manager for media company

I decided to try the patches…as they were really debilitating. It was quite embarrassing and when you're on the phone and you get in that hot and flustered way.

Lesley, 56, call-centre worker

The presence of male colleagues in the workplace could heighten these feelings of embarrassment for women, as described by a 60-year-old financial consultant:

All the other board members were male. All of a similar age, so, possibly did have some idea of what I would be going through, even to the point, I always remember, well she's a friend now, and I was sat in the office with her one day and she suddenly went, "Oh my God!" And I was like, "What?" She said, "I can feel the heat from you!" I went, "Did you have to say that really out loud?"…She just came out with that and of course, all the guys then heads down and I was like yes, great, thanks for that, really appreciate that…I was taking it in my stride but now the whole office is aware and they're all then looking to see, is your hair going to start dripping?

Catherine, 60 years old, financial consultant

Many women also discussed their struggles with brain fog, particularly emphasising problems with concentration, memory loss, and an inability to multi-task:

It is a concern…memory lapses and things like that, meetings that you wouldn't have too much concern about… and you're more apprehensive going into meetings, in terms of being prepared and that you're not suddenly going to forget things, and making sure that you've got all your details there.

Anne, 52, trade union representative for an insurance company

You just deal with that one thing at the time, and then you forget all about it and then you go, I don't know anything about that.

Claire, 54 years old, call-centre worker

I think I've got brain fog and wasn't as sharp as I felt I had been.

Elizabeth, 62, content editor, media production company

My memory was dreadful. Sometimes so foggy, because I mean my job is so intricate and sometimes you'd read something three or four times and you think I can't understand what I'm doing and then suddenly it would just snap, that's right, I remember now but I think I covered it quite well, I mean it was hard work but I had to really dig in… I honestly thought for a wee bit I was going through Alzheimer's because I was so forgetful.

Deirdre, 58, project manager for internet provider

Many women reported a significant drop in confidence at work as a result of these physical and cognitive symptoms. They also reported anxiety that they were being judged negatively by colleagues. Catherine, a 60-year-old financial consultant, described it as follows:

[I felt] less confident, and as I say, I think part of that was, my mother was ill, menopause, brain going everywhere, not remembering anything, and thinking, I feel absolutely stupid, they think I'm stupid. I can't get my head round things as quickly.

For Elizabeth, a 62-year-old woman working in a media production company, this loss of confidence and anxiety over the negative perceptions of others kept her from talking to others at work about her struggles, or for asking for help at work:

My feeling, at that time, would have been, I wouldn't have wanted anybody to know that I was going through that. Do you know what I mean?...I'd have probably felt a bit cringy about [talking to a manager] and I mean the other thing was, I probably felt, I did start feeling a bit more tired and I think that's the last thing I would have wanted to confess, for the reasons of, we've just been speaking about. You don't want to point the finger at yourself and say, she's not up to it anymore, because you're already feeling that in a way, because of the physical symptoms and…the mental ones too.

Feelings of loss of confidence, and loss of respect from colleagues, were also exacerbated by symptoms such as mood swings and uncontrollable crying. Several of the women that we interviewed said that they felt less able to handle even minor conflicts with colleagues as they were worried about becoming upset or angry. Furthermore, these women said that, as a result, they became quieter at work and less willing to express their own views in discussions – an experience that could feel like a significant shift in their identity and sense of self.

Deirdre, a project manager at an internet provider, described this experience as follows:

The past five years have been really difficult as far as the menopause, it totally changed me, it really did and I was quite crabby at times as well, well emotional I would say, you get quite emotional, you take things to heart too easily. Sometimes, this guy wanted the radio on all the time, well I needed peace and quiet to concentrate, but he wanted to play the radio and I'd go away to the toilets crying and things, it was quite difficult….I became very emotional, weepy, things would upset me. Years ago I would be able to stand my ground and say I'm not putting up with that but because I think the menopause makes you an emotional wreck, and then you're not sleeping properly so you're tired.

In a similar example, Lindsay, whose story is told in full below, described how she felt that the menopause resulted in her losing the ability to "fight [her] corner":

I think [when I was younger] I had to fight my corner, but I am good at this, and I was probably more vocal…. [But] I would probably never pick a fight in the time of the month because that's when you're a bit emotional but when you end up like that all month, there's never a good time to go, what about me? Because I see it as a bit of, probably weakness that you get emotional about something and you don't want to do that in front of your colleagues. So, that for me, is probably the biggie. I just didn't want to, I stopped fighting… to be honest.

Stigmas around mental health can also be a concern for women experiencing the menopause – the effects of which may continue to impact women even after their physical symptoms have resolved. For example, Denise, a 55-year-old HR officer at a large bank, described how she had experienced a loss of confidence at work due to the menopause. Her symptoms had included recurrent panic attacks and crying fits in the office, brain fog, and extreme fatigue, which was induced partly by heavy bleeding and pain that had to be medicated with morphine injections. She said that after "a couple of years on the trot where basically I crashed and burned", she took a prolonged period of sick leave. Despite considering herself as "out the other side" of this difficult time, Denise worried that these experiences still affected how others viewed her, even though she also stated that these fears were probably more "my perception, not the reality". Furthermore, Denise told us that these anxieties made her more hesitant to pursue promotions or new opportunities at work:

It almost affects your credibility, whether real or perceived. I thought they don't need me anymore …I think there is an element of unconscious bias plays into it, and that, I do, you underplay yourself, because you think that people know, they know your history. So, there's an element of looking at yourself from, well, you're only looking at it through our own self, as opposed to what others see and they don't see that, but you think they do. I think that is a residue for those that are still around, that saw the madness. That's what it felt like a madness, a madness. That's what it felt like, a madness…That's my perception, it's probably not the reality, I think my outputs speak for themselves…but that thread is still there, self-doubt.

It is worth noting that Denise also received a cancer diagnosis and suffered a serious respiratory infection during her most difficult years of the menopause, both of which required further time off work. While she feels clear now that the menopause was driving many of her struggles with her mental health, she said that, at the time, it was hard to disentangle the causes of her distress. This was also partly as she was in her forties and so she – and she felt others too – considered her to be "too young" to be experiencing the menopause.

That was the early stages. I think when I look back, I could see what was happening with that anxiety that, loss of confidence, the not knowing what I was doing, even though I was, in fact, capable, I was just all over the place. So, it was evident when I look back, but at the time, I just put it down to well, I didn't know this and I didn't know that, and da, da. I had a loss of confidence, I had anxiety, I had you know, basically I was so stressed, I was crying when I was going home on the train and I didn't know why and all this sort of stuff was going on.

This was a common finding in our research: women can find it hard to identify whether their emotional and cognitive symptoms in particular are a result of the menopause or other stressors in their life, such as work stress, caring responsibilities, or other health difficulties. Indeed, several women spoke of realising only many years later that their low mood, loss of confidence, and general sense of vulnerability corresponded with their perimenopause. Similarly, some women spoke of having had a poor awareness at the time that these sorts of experiences could even be caused by the menopause. Moreover, some women stated that this uncertainty about the cause of their experiences made them more reluctant to seek help.

This finding – in combination with the broader findings detailed above – have two important implications: first, they show how the menopause must be considered not simply as a set of difficult physical symptoms. Rather, it must also be considered in terms of its cumulative and often complex effects on the mental well-being and confidence of women in the workplace. Second, these findings point to the importance of improving awareness of menopause at all levels in the workplace – that is, among women as well as among their colleagues and managers – and of providing appropriate support. The following sections explore the question of support in the workplace. Support in the workplace for women experiencing the menopause

Keeping silent: women's reluctance to talk about the menopause at work

Nine out of the 17 women interviewed in our research reported that they felt unable – or had felt unable in the past – to talk to their manager about difficulties with the menopause. As stated in above, for some women this reluctance was due to a concern about being seen differently or as somehow less capable of their work. Other women felt that menopause was still an unspoken or taboo subject in the workplace. For example, Caroline, a 50-year-old woman who worked for a media company and was currently experiencing menopause symptoms, described why she felt unable to talk to anyone at work about her experiences, especially her manager:

I wouldn't even begin to know how to say to someone at work I am having a bad day because I am going through the menopause… there's just not that conversation, you know, there's never been any correspondence out that covers that.…I still don't think there's enough in the workplace. You know even though my line manager as I said is a nice chap, I don't know if I myself could phone up and could just go one day "the menopause is really affecting me today", like I don't feel comfortable saying it to him and I shouldn't [feel like that] but that's simply because it's not out there. It's because I know it'll make him feel uncomfortable, not me, because I do actually have to deal with it every day.

Caroline's last statement of concern about embarrassing her male manager was expressed by several other women who also saw this as one reason why they felt more comfortable talking to female managers about the menopause than to men. That said, the personality of the male manager in question was also considered to be important:

Oh gosh, no [I could not talk to my manager about it]. I had the most horrible, horrible man that you could ever wish to have as a manager, he was just a horrible man. He was just, you couldn't approach him about anything like that, that's for sure…I [did tell him] my face was burning, I didn't say it was menopause, I didn't want to embarrass him because he wasn't that approachable type of person.

Deirdre, 58, project manager for internet provider

The hot flushes, so I had to get a fan. Yeah, and like rages and stuff, it was a wee bit until I got medicated. But yeah, and that affects your concentration as well, yeah… rages, and then the crying uncontrollably…Someone just had to look at me the wrong way, and I was off crying. [My manager] was good, she was really good, and when I was really feeling bad she used to just let me ... she used to give me a lift up the road, and stuff like that. So, yeah she was good. Very supportive, yeah….But it [was] always kind of a taboo subject and, if you had to phone and say, to a man, that you weren't coming in, just female issues, oh don't mention another word, and that was kind of it…Don't know if it's different now, but yeah you just didn't speak about things like that…I'd be embarrassed [to talk to a male manager] I think they would, well, the male managers I've had, I think some of them would have been a bit embarrassed.

Mary, 56, call-centre worker

Before the manager's secretary, she was great, she dealt with anything, she could go to the boss for me, you know she could say she's having women troubles or whatever, but I couldn't say that to him. I don't know what I'd do [instead], I'd just suffer.

Kate, 54, administrator at a media company

Finally, two women noted that, not only did they feel unable to talk to their managers, but also that there was less HR support available to them now compared to the past. Lindsay, who had worked for a large bank before taking early retirement, described how hard it was to find someone other than her line manager to talk to when she was struggling with the menopause:

When the manager is so busy…it becomes who do you go to? I remember when I started in the bank, HR appeared two or three times a week. So you could go "could I have a word?". And you just went in. HR now is, "press option one for". It's like, really? You don't speak to a human, so a lot of the onus is then put on the line manager. You cannot go through to HR, unless it's a disciplinary or something that the bank considers is important.

For another woman, the problem was more to do with the company downsizing and becoming so small that there was no longer any HR structure in place:

So I don't understand what that's all about so I don't know where I would go if I had any, there's a sort of girl that seems to do sort of, I don't know, I suppose everyday company admin so I suppose she would be my first port of call but as I say we don't have a proper HR. We used to but as I say the company has downsized so much there aren't actually any of those sort of resources in place anymore. So you don't feel you are supported for a lot of things I suppose if I really thought about it. Whether it is menopause or any other type of female problem or any grievances in the workplace.

Caroline, 50, project manager, media company

Asking for support: women's experiences of asking for support with the menopause at work

For the small number of women who did ask for support at work, experiences were varied, although predominately negative. For example, only one woman reported being told that she could take more breaks if she was struggling with her symptoms. This was also the only woman who reported being offered information on the menopause and on her rights (see next section), although some of the women that we interviewed were aware that their employers had recently introduced policies on the menopause.

While one woman reported using a fan at work to manage her hot flushes, four women complained of not being allowed to use a fan. One woman – a call centre worker at a large insurance company – was told this was due to COVID restrictions, while another woman at the same company was told it was due to electrical safety. A project manager at a large bank was told that she required a doctor's letter in order to use a fan, while another woman working at a communications company was also told that external electrical equipment was not allowed for safety reasons. This woman eventually managed to obtain a fan for her desk and a heater for her feet by pursuing her demand with HR, and by arranging the electrical testing herself. Reflecting on the experience, she emphasised that she would not have expected a female manager to behave in the same way as her male manager did at the time:

My feet would be freezing cold, my face would be burning and the back of my neck and hair would be soaking wet, that's what happens when you go through these sweats. They just suddenly happen to you and sometimes you just need a fan, but then the rest of your body could be freezing. So, I asked if I could buy, personally buy a fan and I wasn't allowed, no because it's a safety risk and you've got other people in the office and there's air conditioning if you're not happy. You couldn't open a window or anything because there was other poor people that didn't want to be draughty, they were freezing cold or hot or whatever…He was making out it was a health and safety thing. So, again I had to go above him and go to HR and say to them, I really need this, I'm soaking with sweat, I'm actually dripping with sweat but my feet are freezing as well. So, I was allowed to get a heater and a fan and I got the health and safety people, you know the folk that do the electricity things, I had to go out my way to get all that done so that I was allowed to use them. They'll be out of date by the time I go back to the office if course because they have to be updated, you have to get an electrical testing practise done on them. So, I've now got a female boss and I think she'll be a lot more understanding if I need it when I go back…I had to [do it myself] because it was all men who didn't understand, well there was one other woman who was my age but she just kind of suffered in silence as well, she was very shy and quiet and I'm the opposite.

Deirdre, 58, project manager for internet provider

As a final point, it is worth emphasising that women respond to experiences in the workplace in different ways and can have different perceptions of the behaviours of others. For example, Susan, a senior director at a financial services company, described being told by a fellow director that she was being "hormonally challenged" and was "definitely taking it out on everyone". He told her to "go back into your office, shut the door and to not speak to anybody". She said that he continued by saying "please go away and stop talking to people until your hormones settle down". Susan stated that she was not upset by this experience at all, and that "I admire and respect somebody who can actually just put it out there to you, and say, do you know this morning you're being a total pain". Susan asked her PA whether this was the case and she then apologised to her PA for her "bitchy" behaviour. Susan's relative acceptance of this man's behaviour is suggestive, in part perhaps, of her personality and worldview but also of that fact that she was a senior director in the company, who reported being confident of her importance in the business. This is an important reminder that context – and particularly relations of power in the workplace – are also an important factor that shape how women respond to the reactions and behaviour of others towards them as they experience the menopause.

Positive experiences of menopause support at work

Some women did report having more positive experiences of accessing support in the workplace, particularly when accessing information or networks specifically designed to address issues around the menopause. For example, while not being allowed a fan initially by her manager, the call centre worker at the insurance company eventually spoke to a "well-being lead" at work who directed her to the company's information on the menopause, which she found very helpful. They also encouraged her to take more breaks if she was struggling:

I mean, we've got health and wellbeing people who regularly speak to us and we can really speak to them at any time if we've got any problems, which is really good. I spoke to the wellbeing lead when we were in the office and she directed me to the website, they had a whole section about menopause. It directed you to different areas for information, so I read through all that, I got time to go through all that, it advised you to go and see your GP and discuss it and things like that. They were happy for me to have my fan on my desk, even if it got a bit much just go into personal time, if I felt I needed a bit of space I could do that, they were very, very good.

Lesley, 56, call-centre worker

Claire, a call centre worker for a communications company, who had recently been experiencing brain fog and memory loss due to the menopause was aware of the company's new policy on the menopause. She felt that, if necessary, she would draw upon this policy if she had to ask her manager to make any adjustments or if her manager raised issues with her work:

If it was a case that my manager was pulling us up on something, then I certainly would [use the menopause policy]. I mean, that's one good thing about [my employer], all their policies are available for everyone to see, so it's not like they're hidden or anything like that. He's not said anything to me about anything, but I would certainly pull out the menopause information anyway.

Lindsay, whose story is explored in full below, joined a network of women at work who were experiencing similar problems, which she found helpful:

There was a group, one of these things that had probably been set up by women in the same position and it was something you could join a call at lunchtime or something like that and they did have a lady on it, one time, when I dialled in, really helpful and sort of went, oh yes, I'm not the only one, or describe things and you thought, oh right, okay, I'm not actually going daft here, this is just part of the bigger picture.

Lindsay, 57, former project manager at large bank

It is also worth noting that several women stated that they were aware of a palpable shift in awareness around the menopause in recent years and that, if they had the same problems today as they did several years ago, they might feel more able to address it with their managers. This was especially the case where their employer had introduced training or a specific menopause policy in recent years.

Case study: Lindsay's story

Lindsay's story illustrates the detrimental impact that poor support and management in the workplace can have on women experiencing the menopause. It shows how these impacts can have long-lasting effects on the confidence of women, preventing them in some cases from seeking alternative or new employment. It also shows how women may struggle to talk openly about their symptoms with their managers, and that they may also struggle to access other forms of help, if this help is not readily and clearly available.

Lindsay had worked as a project manager in a large bank until 2019 when, at the age of 54, she decided to take early retirement. Lindsay attributed this decision – and her decision to not return to any form of work – to her experiences of the menopause at work.

Lindsay joined the bank in 2000 and, over the years, moved up four grades, ending up in a manager's position. She expressed pride in this fact, and confidence in the skills and capabilities that she had developed over the years. In our interview, however, she also described her confidence as "totally and utterly shattered" to the extent that she now felt unable to apply for any other jobs, despite being relatively keen to continue some form of work, particularly part-time work.

When asked why her confidence was so low, she spoke about the physical and emotional impacts of the menopause, particularly the impacts of cognitive symptoms, such as brain fog and memory loss. She stated that "[her] confidence just went, it was almost like, you're stupid when you reach a certain age." She also spoke at length about the lack of support and understanding that she received from her male manager at the time, whom she made a point of noting was "the same age as my son". The first example of this poor management that she gave in our interview was an instance when her manager made a joke about hot flushes, which she felt was at her expense:

'He actually joined a call one day and said "Oh god I'm having a hot flush" and then went "oh sorry Lindsay I didn't realise you were already on the call". It was just a huge joke…you could hear people laughing, whether that was out of embarrassment or whatever.'

This manager also proved particularly unsupportive if Lindsay was struggling to understand a new task – difficulties that were worsened by her brain fog:

'The brain fog is a biggie, also probably my boss' reaction if I had to say "I'm sorry, I don't understand that" again, kind of thing, and there's only so many times that you can get that reaction from someone that you just think, I'm going to stop asking questions.'

For Lindsay, her manager was part of a broader problem at the bank whereby too many "young people" were promoted to "man management" roles, despite lacking life experience and people-management skills:

'I feel that the culture in the bank was that, let's promote the youngsters as quick as we can but they had no man management skills. They might have had the technical skills…but they didn't actually know how to speak to people or treat people…I see things now that they're going to have everybody [trained] in the workplace, that's going to, well, good luck with that but when you're trying to explain it to a 30-year-old lad, who has women of that age in his team, I'm not sure they will all take it in, because it's not something they can experience.'

Given her experiences, it is perhaps unsurprising that Lindsay never spoke directly to her line manager about the menopause:

'I don't think I could express it at work, I'd have been embarrassed, to go to someone, and I keep going back to it, but that the lad who managed me, was the same age as my son, and if he was a good enough manager, I should have been able to approach him and say "I'm sorry, this is how I feel". It shouldn't have gone anywhere else, maybe to his boss, to say "This is why I have to give her allowances" or whatever. But I just couldn't do it.'

The only thing that Lindsay did ask for her during these difficult times was a fan on her desk, although she was told that she required a doctor's note for this. She described this as a final straw for her at work: "that was a biggie, why am I having to explain to someone? I used to joke about it, I'm at a delicate age. We will need a doctor's line. Really?" As mentioned in the above sections, Lindsay participated in a network group that she found helpful, although she stated that she found the HR system too remote and impersonal, and so she did not seek help from here. This last comment resonantes with our interview with an HR officer at this bank, who expressed concern that employees often find the HR systems difficult to navigate.

3.4.3 Views and approaches to the menopause among employers

Our research suggests that the menopause is increasingly understood to be an important issue in the workplace by employers. Six out of the 13 organisations that we interviewed have done work in recent years around the menopause, while another four organisations stated that they thought they should develop work in this area in the future. The remaining three organisations told us that they saw the menopause to be an important issue, however they felt that their existing approach to health and well-being – and to flexible working – would be adequate in supporting women who were struggling.

The six organisations who had done work on the menopause were – with the exception of one – organisations with at least over 100 employees. The exception was a small financial services company that was owned by a larger parent company: it was this parent company that had provided a policy and training on the menopause. For these organisations, work on the menopause had only begun in the last couple of years: indeed, many of these initiatives were still in their infancy, with most organisations reporting little work in this area prior to 2017.

The seven organisations that had not done any work on the menopause were organisations with under 100 employees, and the majority of these had under 20 employees. In other words, larger organisations were much more likely to have undertaken work on the menopause than smaller organisations.

The nature of this work on the menopause was fairly similar between organisations, and tended to include a range of initiatives, such as: training for line managers; networks that allowed peers experiencing the menopause to come together and talk; and policies that outlined the support available, as well as employees' rights within the workplace. One large bank that we interviewed also provided private insurance for their employees and, through this provider, employees had access to 'menopause clinics' where they could obtain medical advice. A communications company also noted that employees had access to a variety of general health and well-being tools, such as online Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.

The HR officer at this large bank pointed out, however, that the HR systems in the bank were complex and not necessarily easy to find. She noted that there had been a significant reduction in the number of HR employees in the bank, as all the HR systems had been replaced by online systems. She expressed concern that people were often unaware of what was available to them, due to the difficulties in navigating these systems. Interestingly, this concern resonates with the experiences of Lindsay (see above), a former employee at the bank, who commented on finding the lack of face-to-face HR support difficult when she herself was struggling with the menopause and an unsympathetic line manager.

Crucially, only two out of the six organisations who provided training on the menopause reported that training sessions on the menopause were compulsory for managers. In the remainder of these organisations, training on the menopause was often on a "self-service" basis, as an HR manager at a communications company put it. This meant that a person experiencing the menopause, or a manager, could access the training and policies online, if and when they became aware of the issue. As our research on women's experiences shows, however, many women feel unable to talk to their line managers about the menopause, instead choosing to keep their struggles silent. This underlines the potential problems of optional training on the menopause.

Furthermore, our research also suggests that it is not always clear to managers how they should raise the issue of the menopause with employees. An HR manager at a consultancy firm noted that she found this particularly difficult to manage, as she often felt instinctively that women were suffering with symptoms of the menopause, but she felt that it was problematic – and potentially offensive – to ask women if this was why their performance had suffered recently. For male managers, this can potentially be an even harder conversation to initiate: the managing director of a media production company, for example, said that he would be too "embarrassed" to ask a woman if she was experiencing the menopause. This suggests, therefore, that training and awareness initiatives need not only to assist those who are comfortable with talking about the menopause but also to help those conversations begin in the first place.

As already stated, three of the organisations that we spoke to stated that they did not feel that they needed specific menopause policies or training. Interestingly, these organisations all had under ten employees and, moreover, the people that we interviewed there were all women over 50 themselves – two of whom spoke openly to us about their own personal struggles with the menopause. These women stated that they felt that they would apply the same management approach to the menopause as they did to any other health or personal issue – "listening", "empathy", and "flexibility". We also interviewed two male CEOs who felt that their companies should do more on the menopause because they had personally witnessed their spouses struggle with symptoms. These men expressed both a confidence in recognising symptoms of the menopause, and in talking about these issues with women.

These findings suggest that the skill and willingness of managers to engage and even recognise symptoms of the menopause may vary depending on their age and on their experiences of the menopause, be this personal experience or that of people close to them. It is reasonable to suggest, therefore, that the uptake of optional training on the menopause could similarly vary along these lines, with those with the least experience being the least likely to seek out support and training.

3.5 Women's wishes around retirement or reduced hours

What did women in our study say about their wishes around retirement and reduced hours?

Most of the women that we interviewed had specific hopes for when they wanted to retire. The majority of the women stated they wished to retire either at 60 or 65, while one woman hoped to retire at 55. In other words, most women hoped to retire before the official state pension age. In our sample, we also interviewed three women who had already taken retirement prior to 60: two of these women had subsequently returned to work while one had not. Most of the women cited financial reasons for why they wished to continue working, although some women also stated that they would be "bored" if they retired too early.

Many women also stated that they would like to reduce their hours as they approached retirement, if this was possible financially and if their employers would allow it.

Women spoke at length about their reasons for wishing to retire in the near future or, at the very least, to work substantially reduced hours. Most women spoke about wanting to retire or to reduce their hours so as to have more time to themselves to pursue their own interests, to spend time with family and friends, to travel, and to focus on their own physical and mental health. Several women also spoke about wishing to volunteer, while other women had acquired pets in lockdown and wanted the time to enjoy them, without having to leave them alone while they were in the office. In addition to these general hopes and desires for retirement, women also talked about specific concerns or experiences that made their wishes to retire, or to reduce their hours, more pressing.

A small number of the women that we spoke to reported having mentioned their retirement plans to their employers and/or expressed a wish for some sort of phased retirement whereby they reduced their hours as they approached retirement. One woman that we spoke to reported that these conversations with her employer had resulted in a change to her role and responsibility, so that she could reduce her hours in coming years. She stated that while she was initially daunted by this change, as it involved learning new skills, she welcomed the arrangement and the recognition from her employer that she would want to reduce her hours as she approached retirement.

3.5.1 Wishes to retire prior to ill health

One particularly common theme was that women observed poor health in people close to them and felt that they wanted to retire prior to the onset of similar health problems:

I'd like to be, well, done working definitely within the next five years. That's what I'm hoping, I'd like to be finished. I think also because…my mother had Alzheimer's and now my sister has Alzheimer's. And also my brother had a massive heart attack, and died when he was 53, or 54. So, I kind of feel like I do want to ... just in case I have the longevity gene, that I know is sometimes in the family, but you don't know what's around the corner. You just don't know. I mean my sister and her husband were going to travel, or move to New Mexico, or Hawaii or someplace lovely, and that's never going to happen, and she's in a nursing home. And, my mother and father, they were enjoying their retirement, and then it happened in their 60s, both of them.

Jill, 60, administrator for an internet provider

I just want to enjoy life, you hear so many horror stories of people retiring at 65 and 67 and they don't enjoy it, they've got too many ailments and whatever going on, and I just want to still be young enough to enjoy it.

Claire, 54, call centre worker

Because I'm thinking I've worked since I was a 16-year-old, I've never not worked and I'm thinking I want to enjoy that time. I feel there's so many people that… they worked right up until state pension and the horrible thing is as soon as they left, they passed away.

Helen, 57, manager in a credit union

In some cases, such views were borne out of recent experiences of bereavement: indeed, three of the women interviewed had recently experienced the death of a sibling, which they all cited as a factor in their wish to prioritise their well-being over work.

3.5.2. Stress at work

Another factor that affected women's wishes around retirement were experiences of discontent or stress in the workplace. Three women, for example, saw early retirement as a solution to their problems in the workplace, although two of these women subsequently returned to work. These two women described their decisions as follows:

So, it was really bad and I just wanted out and the fact that I'd lost my sister as well I thought do you know what, life's too short, I'm not putting up with this. I needed the money, I still needed the money to pay the bills, so taking early retirement just seemed like the only option I had.

Lesley, 56, call-centre worker

I suppose things shifted, I wasn't entirely happy with the situation in my job. And I didn't have enough motivation to change it, and I just thought the easiest thing here is to retire and come out of it.

Amanda, 65, administrator for financial services company

For one call-centre worker who had not yet retired, retirement was an opportunity to escape the stresses of dealing with both difficult customers, and the scrutiny of managers:

But it's the shelf life, of getting shouted at. Why would I want another five years of getting shouted at constantly from customers and, so, that would be the reason as to why. Probably it's not the people around me, it would be the customers and the politics that go behind that, with the, how your manager sees it. Your manager is not sitting on the phone for a full hour for full-time shifts and getting picked up on the littlest things and whatever, it's just, I'm not into the politics about that either.

Claire, 54, call centre worker

3.5.3 Time with spouses

Women with partners or spouses who had already retired typically stated that this was also a key factor in their motivation to reduce their hours or retire fully:

If I could afford to, I would probably quite like to go at 55…my husband is ten years older, so, he's already retired, but doing a Maths Degree, with the Open University. So, in fact, in terms of having that time, we think time is more important, so, if we could afford it and not be working, it's something I wouldn't rule out.

Anne, 52, trade union representative for an insurance company

I'm married, my husband has now retired, so, that was also a driver for me, he's a few years older and I don't want to get to that stage, that says, do you know what? I've put so much into my working life and we didn't have some time together.

Catherine, 60, financial consultant.

With my husband retiring and my reduced hours we can go and do things together on a Thursday and a Friday, so it may sound mundane, but going to Costco on a Thursday is much nicer than on a Saturday.

Sandra, 52, bank worker and former senior manager at a large bank

If their spouses had experienced poor health themselves, this further increased their motivation:

It was a factor, at the time, when I finished up, it is a factor, my husband…in 2018 had three heart attacks… so, yes, I did have a thing, until I knew how my husband was going to cope with that, I didn't really want to move [jobs] or anything. So, yes, there's lots of little things but there's only so many times you can say, I don't want to, I can still do the work you give me, but I don't want to travel, I don't want to do this and I think you just, I don't know, everything just got too much. My sister died in 2018.

Lindsay, 57, former project manager at a large bank

I knew probably at that point, I knew I was going to retire at 60. And up until then I had always thought I would work on beyond 60, but at that point I knew I was going to stop. My husband had been quite unwell and had a triple bypass and retired a wee bit early, and it was killing me going to work every day when he was lying in his bed. I mean he is fit and well, and I am just a little bit younger than him. So, I was able to stop just shy of 60 and that's what I wanted to do at that point…I wouldn't want to leave my husband in the house all the time, because he doesn't have enough to do. That's what he would say and he likes the company.

Amanda, 65, administrator for a financial services company

My long-term partner, has had significant health issues, over a period of time. Now, he's back at work, etc., but he had a heart attack in 2016, he was nearly in a body bag in 2017, nearly died, and we were out in India at the time. 2018 he had sepsis, and just last year, he had some kind of shoulder thing. The reason for saying all that is that I think, also influenced me, right, take stock. Because that could have went either way.

Denise, 55, HR officer for a large bank

3.5.4. Employer views on retirement and succession planning

Employers demonstrated a variety of concerns around the question of retirement, sometimes demonstrating relatively conflicting approaches to the subject. On one hand, some HR managers expressed concerns about line managers making assumptions about people's plans for retirement. An HR manager for an IT consultancy firm, for example, stated clearly that line managers should not be having these conversations with employees, unless the issue was directly raised by the employee themselves:

So just like enforcing with the team leaders that they can't talk about retirement with an older person in the team because you wouldn't talk like that to someone in their twenties, so just making sure that everyone's treated exactly the same across the business. There are no specific written policies calling anything like that out… make sure that everybody's being treated the same and leaving the door open if that person wants to share that they are planning to retire, but if they don't, they don't have to do that.

Similarly, the HR director at a large financial services company also reported having discussions across the business with managers, reminding them they should not be making assumptions that people wish to retire before or even by the state pension age:

[It's about] the people managers having really good career conversations and not assuming people don't want to carry on progressing… You know, it can be 'Oh well, you know, that person's 60, they'll be thinking about their retirement'. Well not necessarily.

At the same time, this same company reported that they had increasingly seen "active discussion[s] on how [older people] want to phase into their retirement", with senior partners in particular choosing to reduce their hours over a one- to two- year period prior to retirement.

Phased retirement was also considered by other companies and they generally welcomed this, seeing it as an opportunity to plan ahead. One employer also noted that where there were open conversations about retirement, this could be productive in allowing senior staff to train up younger staff.

In some cases, however, employers largely assumed that people in their late 50s and early 60s had reduced their hours because they were planning to retire in the near future, despite being hesitant to confirm this with their employees. Indeed, employers expressed some uncertainty about the best way to initiate these conversations with employees over retirement. For example, an HR manager for a consultancy social enterprise, stated that succession planning was quite central to their planning, given that they had an "ageing workforce" with a majority of employees over 40. She stated that they had tried to "promote honest conversations" between employees and line managers about retirement plans, although she stated that these were often difficult conversations for line managers, requiring sensitivity and consideration:

Now we recognise that line managers can sometimes find those conversations hard. There's definitely a balance. So, what I wouldn't want is a manager saying to Joe Bloggs: "By the way, when are you intending to retire?" – because that's not what we would be looking for. But there may be an appropriate time… What I would always encourage is, a manager and an employee to know each other very well in the sense that ... or to find a way of communicating with each other, so they know when the appropriate time to ask certain questions are. So, if there was a window of opportunity somewhere along the line, that somebody was saying: "Oh, well, I'm thinking that in a few years' time I'm probably going to retire." You might say: "Are you genuinely thinking about that? Is that something that you're planning for?" And you would get a feel for whether the individuals is going to stay 10 years, or whether they're ... Some people are very open: "Oh, no, I'm on the countdown. I'll be out of here in 2 years' time." A lot of managers will know that, without even asking a question as such. So, I think that's helpful, but equally I think some managers find even that subtle conversation quite hard to get into.

Interestingly, the organisation had recently asked an external organisation to run some "Planning for Your Future workshops" for employees, which this HR manager felt was useful as a way to "try and break down some of those barriers". She re-emphasised that the most important thing was creating an environment where people felt able to share their retirement plans, without fear of discrimination:

It's trying to help people to have those conversations, where they feel appropriate, that its appropriate to do so, but at the same time not feel threatened by it – or like you say, know that they're not going to be disadvantaged because they've then said [that]. It's not that they're not committed to the organisation, it's just that they are thinking a wee bit further ahead – they want to give us that long-term plan. Helpfully, quite often people do raise it.



Back to top