In March 2022, St Philips Chambers signed up to the Menopause Workplace Pledge – further reinforcing our commitment to support the issue of menopause, to encourage open, positive and respectful conversations, and actively support affected members and staff.

Research has shown that two thirds of employees feel uncomfortable talking to their manager about perimenopause and menopause. It is likely that a similar (or higher) number of barristers feel uncomfortable discussing these issues with their clerks, colleagues, or chambers’ leadership.

With women of menopausal age the fastest growing demographic in the workforce, many chambers are adopting menopause policies and procedures. These are important first steps, but these are only first steps. To ensure a real, tangible impact, policy and practice need to form a part of a systemic cultural ethos.

Important fundamentals

There are clear and compelling reasons to support individuals in the workplace. It fosters an inclusive culture and is good for colleagues, helping to solidify retention and increase motivation. Clients have certain expectations when it comes to the sets they instruct, and pressing social issues are at the forefront of guiding those expectations. Being proactive can only be of benefit to chambers and to the wider Bar, in addition to those members and staff directly affected by the menopause.

To achieve your goals, it is important to secure buy-in at senior level from both members and staff. This can be achieved through internal communication and awareness training – not just as a one-off box ticking exercise, but as a regular occurrence, accessible to all members and staff through a variety of channels, such as live training sessions, videos or articles, roundtables and discussions. Ensuring maximum accessibility in a variety of formats will ensure maximum outreach. We have found that many in attendance at menopause awareness training are grateful for the practical information and guidance.

From desk fans to tailored clerking

A recent report by the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee recommended an amendment to the Equality Act to introduce menopause as a protected characteristic and include a duty for organisations to provide reasonable adjustments. These adjustments can and should be embedded within the policy to mitigate physical symptoms. Desk placement, desk fans, controllable air conditioning, and flexible working are all easily implemented and can provide a great deal of relief.

In addition to the often-debilitating physical symptoms, the cognitive and psychological effects need to be understood and managed from a workplace perspective. Considering that symptoms can include loss of concentration, memory loss, anxiety and loss of confidence and self-esteem, it is imperative that clerks know how to factor this into diary management. This might result in subtle changes, like ensuring that those who are experiencing the menopause have more time between cases to rest and recover, or putting in place a system of reminders. Tailoring, or offering a more personal service of clerking to members (by no means preferentially but managing their personal situations) is crucial. Clerks should be educated to spot tell-tale signs of fatigue and identify changes in performance in a compassionate and helpful manner.

When it comes to practice development, it is important to recognise what may need to be done differently to ensure that members can reach their goals and aspirations. For example, for silk applications, it is important to ensure that time is allowed for adequate preparation – flexibility needs to be at the core of diary management, and an open two-way channel of communication upheld to ensure that key decisions can be made where appropriate.

Shaking the stigma

Research conducted by the Women and Equalities Committee highlighted that stigma, a lack of support, and discrimination all played a key part in forcing those going through the menopause out of work. This stigma is compounded for groups such as younger women, those of different ethnic minority backgrounds, and LGBT+ people.

While the menopause is inevitable for over half the population, the loss of talented members and staff need not be. Dismissive attitudes – and the stigma attached to them – can and must be dismantled. Those experiencing the menopause should be supported not just to maintain, but to thrive in the careers they have won.

Above all, communication is key. Regular signposting of support, and reminders about member and staff benefits and menopause-specific resources not only ensures that individuals are properly supported but, crucially, destigmatises and helps to reduce feelings of awkwardness in talking about it.

We have already seen the benefits of training and fostering an inclusive culture. People feel empowered to discuss the issues they are facing. Managers and senior members of chambers are able confidently to have and lead conversations, and understand where they need to go for further advice on how to support their colleagues.

EAPs and menopause champions

A critical point on our journey has been the exploration of how Employee Assistance Programmes can apply to members of chambers as well as employees, providing a confidential service that can help to alleviate the pressure and sensitivity of talking to colleagues and another point that people can be referred to for ongoing support.

Furthermore, we are implementing Menopause Champions as a point of contact for people to go to for initial advice, including the process for bringing menopause up with clerks and senior members of chambers, to how to request reasonable adjustments, flexible working and sick leave (which should be recorded differently to other periods of sickness absence). Our menopause champions act as ambassadors for the supportive culture we are building, and providing such channels of help, signposting and guidance outside the usual chambers’ hierarchy can help to alleviate anxieties around discussing long-term health conditions.

Seen, heard, respected – and valued

Our chambers treat the menopause as we would any other health condition. Reasonable adjustments have been made to working patterns or environments to ensure that members and staff are empowered to do their jobs, and we expect our members and staff to help facilitate a positive and supportive working environment. With significant barriers still to be faced in obtaining diagnosis and treatment for menopause or perimenopause, it is essential that the workplace is an environment where those experiencing the menopause can feel seen, heard, respected, and valued.

It is important to take issues surrounding the menopause seriously while changing mindsets and attitudes. We need to ensure that the menopause is taken account of without the need for conscious thought, and becomes part and parcel of day-to-day considerations. Education is important, to ensure that everyone can understand what the menopause is and talk about it freely. Everyone knows someone who is or will be affected by the menopause, and equipped with knowledge will be better able to support colleagues, friends, and family.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to something which affects over half of the working population. Flexibility and compassion are key to ensuring your menopause strategy is successful. Be ready to listen to your members and to your employees and to adapt your approach readily, based on that feedback. 

Find out more about the Wellbeing of Women Menopause Pledge. On #WorldMenopauseDay (18 October 2022) the International Menopause Society published a white paper  to raise awareness of cognitive health during the menopause & perimenopause.