By Max Clarke

To coincide with International Women's Day today (Tuesday), the TUC has published new guidance on how employers and union reps can work together to support women through the menopause at work.

The menopause is an important occupational health issue for the 3.5 million women over the age of 50 currently in work. The TUC believes that employers need to recognise that women of menopausal age may need extra consideration, as changes during the menopause can affect how a woman does her work, and her relationship with her boss and colleagues.

The TUC guidance is drawn from the experience of union health and safety representatives and also important new research published by the British Occupational Health Research Foundation (BOHRF) in conjunction with the University of Nottingham.

Supporting women through the menopause will help union reps raise the issue of the menopause in workplaces, and ensure that employers are aware that poor working conditions can aggravate symptoms.

Menopausal women can experience hot flushes, headaches, tiredness, sweating, anxiety attacks and an increase in stress levels. High workplace temperatures, poor ventilation, poor or non-existent rest or toilet facilities, or a lack of access to cold drinking water at work can make all of these symptoms worse, says the TUC.

Female staff have told the TUC their managers didn't recognise problems associated with the menopause - they speak of being criticised for menopause-related sick leave, their embarrassment at discussing the menopause with their employers, and being criticised or ridiculed by their managers on the subject.

The TUC believes that employers have a responsibility to take into account the difficulties that women may experience during the menopause, and that female workers should be able to expect support and assistance during what is, for many, a very difficult time.

The report suggests:

• Employers should ensure that all line managers have been trained to know how the menopause can affect work and what adjustments may be necessary to support women who are experiencing the menopause.

• Employers can highlight the menopause so all staff know that the workplace has a positive attitude to the issue. Guidance on how to deal with the menopause should be freely available.

• Women should be given information of how they can get support for issues that arise as a result of the menopause. Some women will feel uncomfortable going to their line manager, especially if it is a man, and other options should be available through human resources, or a welfare officer.

• Sickness absence procedures should cater for menopause-related sickness absence.

• Working time arrangements should be flexible enough to ensure they meet the needs of menopausal women, who may require to leave work suddenly. They may also need more breaks during the day.

• Risk assessments should consider the specific needs of menopausal women and ensure that the working environment will not make their symptoms worse. Issues that need looking at include temperature and ventilation. The assessments should also address welfare issues such as toilet facilities and access to cold water.

TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber said: 'We welcome the research published by BOHRF. Despite the increasingly large number of older women in employment, the menopause is rarely seen as a workplace issue.

'There is no excuse for the silence, embarrassment, confusion and inaction around the menopause - something which all women go through.

'The health of women in later years depends very much on their health when they are working through the menopause, and this report shows employers and unions can work together to do much more to protect them.'