By Rachel Lankester, Mutton Club editor
Shocking statistics make for good headlines. The statistic that nearly one million women have quit their jobs because of the menopause in the UK is quoted widely. Sometimes the figure is ‘nearly 900,000’ but it often gets rounded up. This is often tied in with other ‘facts’ such as menopause leading to a 16% increase in suicide or a greater risk of Alzheimer’s, and the labelling of menopause as a deficiency in need of treatment.
So where does this figure come from? I see it in a UK parliament inquiry, in a UK government press release about the Civil Service signing the Menopause Workplace Pledge, in The Guardian and The Times, on Sky News and on HR websites. Recently Cherry Ainsworth, Global Head of Talent Acquisition at the Financial Times quoted it when talking on LinkedIn about the FT being a proud signatory of the “Menopause Workplace Pledge”.
I asked Cherry for the source for this figure and she told me it was from research done by Wellbeing of Women, a highly respected and trusted organisation doing great work around the wellbeing of women. The 900,000 figure was on the Wellbeing of Women website, so I asked them if I could read the research the figure came from. (Wellbeing of Women originally declined to accept the findings of this article, but it appears the figure has now finally been removed from their website.)
They told me it came from research done by Bupa and gave me further links as reference. The first link was to the CIPD, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development and took me to an article “in partnership with Bupa”. It said “research from Bupa has shown that almost a million women have left their job because of menopausal symptoms such as hot flushes and night sweats and increased anxiety while others are forced to take long-term absence from work to manage symptoms.”
I followed the link from this article to what I thought was the actual research, but it was another article, this time written in People Management magazine, a website seemingly managed by CIPD, by Alaana Linney, commercial director at Bupa Health Clinics. She wrote “Our most recent research found that almost 1 million women have left a job because of menopause symptoms, exposing UK businesses to the threat of losing their most experienced female talent.”
There was no further link to any research, so I rang Bupa and they supplied a press release. So what did the press release say about the research?
- The survey was conducted by Censuswide and commissioned by Bupa Health Clinics
- 1000 UK women were surveyed in September 2019
- There was no demographic information other than that women were surveyed
- There was no information as to how these women were selected
- The survey explored four main female health events that cause women to take long-term leave, periods, fertility struggles, pregnancy and menopause
- The women surveyed appear to have been aged 18-70
The survey press release reported only one finding specific to menopause:
“Women who have taken long-term absence from work because of menopause, take an average of 32 weeks’, to accommodate their symptoms which range from depression, anxiety, hot flushes and mood swings. During this stage of life, which can start in a woman’s early forties, almost a million5 women have left their job completely.
5 4% of 22,305,778 (UK women aged 18-70) = 892,231”
According to this quote, what the survey actually found was this: that 4% of their total of 1000 women surveyed had left their job completely during this [menopause] stage of life [which can start in a woman’s early forties].
I asked Bupa about the question that was asked to reach the 4% figure and was told it was: “have you ever left your job because one of these events became unmanageable alongside work?” The survey said the events researched were periods, fertility struggles, pregnancy and menopause. Not just menopause.
And the million figure? It seems they used their 4% and expanded it to include the entire UK population of women aged 18-70 (22,305,778), not just women of menopause age. There was no cited source for that figure, however, it is exactly the same figure for all women aged 18-70 in the UK in ONS Population estimates for 2018.
The equivalent figure for all women aged 45-55 (which is the age range quoted on the NHS website for menopause) is 5,121,683. There is also no attempt to account for the fact that many women of menopause age will not be in employment. It ignores that according to the ONS, one quarter of the female working age population are economically inactive (including students, people looking after family and home, long-term or temporary sick and disabled, and retirees). The current female employment rate is 72.2% which when applied to women of menopause age gives us 3,697,855 women of menopause age employed in the UK.
This means we can say (with a pretty low degree of confidence given the apparent lack of representative sample or demographic weighting) that around 150,000 women of menopause age have quit a job due to periods, fertility struggles, pregnancy or menopause. Not quite as shocking as almost a million women leaving work because of menopause, but a lot closer to the truth.
So why the misleading stories? These figures back up negative narratives about menopause, which in turn drive sales of HRT and menopause services. The level of extrapolation has also increased. In March 2022, the CIPD held an online event about Menopause in the Workplace in which Bev Thorogood, Menopause Specialist Trainer, told the audience that 900,000 women are leaving the workplace because of menopause EVERY year.
This staggering statement is based on a single snapshot survey of just 1000 women, with no evidence of representative sampling, asking vague questions and then extrapolating findings to inappropriate and, incorrect, populations.
And what of the 4% who left a job? Did these women go back to work later on? Did they retire? Were other reasons given? More importantly, did they actually specify menopause as the reason for them leaving work in their exit interview?
Bupa got some phenomenal press coverage and launched a £250 a year Menopause Plan in addition to their regular health insurance. I used to work in PR so I know all about doing a survey to generate press coverage. It’s a useful tool in the PR arsenal. Some journalists love them because it’s easy copy and of course dramatic headlines get lots of eyeballs, which means more advertising revenue. Follow the money. Again.
Sometimes we don’t know the truth and that’s OK, so long as we’re honest about it. It’s not OK to quote as fact ‘statistics’ that are inaccurate or misleading. Or manipulate data to prove a point. And just because figures get quoted and repeated doesn’t make them any more reliable. If the information is wrong, the results can be dangerous. It’s worth noting that 4% of 1000 is 40. So all this misinformation off the vague responses of 40 women.
We need to be vigilant and scrutinize what we’re being told, and we need to hold to account those who use such information. Menopause is a big issue. When it comes to menopause ‘facts’, women deserve to have the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Our campaigns need solid truthful foundations, not misleading hype that undermines the integrity of what we’re working for.
The author is very grateful to Ben Hickman, Research Director, Myriad Research for help verifying the accuracy of her research.
Rachel Lankester is the founder of Magnificent Midlife, author, host of the Magnificent Midlife Podcast, a midlife mentor and editor of the Mutton Club online magazine. After an initially devastating early menopause at 41, she dedicated herself to helping women vibrantly transition through the sometimes messy middle of life, helping them cope better with menopause and ageing in general, and create magnificent next chapters. She’s been featured in/on BBC Woman’s Hour, The Huffington Post, The Sunday Times, Thrive Global, Authority Magazine, The Age Buster, Woman’s Weekly, Prima Magazine, eShe, Tatler HK and Woman’s Own amongst others. She believes we just get better with age. Get her book Magnificent Midlife: Transform Your Middle Years, Menopause and Beyond which was recommended in the New York Times.