Written evidence from Women in Sport [MEW0064]

Women in Sport is a charity formed in 1984 to further the cause of women in sport. Our vision is that no-one is excluded from the joy, fulfilment and lifelong benefits of sport and exercise.

We have a track record of success in securing change, based on our deep understanding of the needs and aspirations of women and girls at each life stage, including during the menopause transition. We are determined to break down stubborn gender inequalities through our work within the sports sector and beyond.

Our expert and sector-leading insight is driving innovation, our programmes are providing impactful solutions to tackle gender inequalities, and our campaigning is empowering more women and girls to be active.

Menopause, the Workplace, and Physical Activity: the context

There are 3.5 million women over 50 in the workplace in the UK and the average age of menopause onset is 51[1]. For women this is the time that they are adding the most value to business. They bring experience, expertise, and wisdom.

Women are also likely at their busiest at work during this time in their lives, with potentially more responsibility and in more senior positions. Due to changing gender norms, women are more likely to be in work now than ever before; in the past 40 years, the percentage of women aged 25-54 in work has risen by 21% to an all-time high of 78%. According to the same study, women are also more likely to be working full-time now than in previous decades[2]. Yet 94% of women said that menopause affected their work, with half taking time off work[3] and nearly half (48%) of women experiencing 3 or more symptoms of menopause and perimenopause have not spoken to anyone at work about their experiences[4].

However, this is also a time when many women face some significant challenges, juggling and prioritising others over themselves, leaving no time to be active, fit or healthy. According to Carers UK, one in four women aged 50-64 have caring responsibilities (compared to one in six men) and women are more likely to be “sandwich carers” – caring for children and older relatives at the same time[5].  The time commitment for carers can be substantial. A 2019 study by Aviva found that 42% of carers spend at least 10 hours a week caring for family members, and 47% said they had a maximum of four hours to themselves per week – less than 35 minutes per day[6]. Carers UK have estimated that 17% of unemployed women had given up work to care, compared to just 1% of men[7]. For those who stay in work,  it can seem impossible to carve out regular time to prioritise themselves. The result is that they have very little time or energy to prioritise themselves; taking part in sport and exercise gradually and increasingly feels out of their reach[8]

Far too many women in midlife are missing out on the social, psychological and physical health benefits of being active. A third of women aged 41 to 60 are not meeting the Chief Medical Officer’s guidelines of 150 minutes per week of exercise and a fifth are not achieving even 30 minutes per week. Our research has found that 30% of women said they were “less active” since starting menopause[9], a time where physical activity is more important than ever for mental and physical wellbeing.

Although all women are affected, we know that those in lower socioeconomic groups are even less likely to be active: only 50% of women in this group are meeting guidelines for activity, compared to 72% of women in the highest groups. We also know that women in lower socioeconomic groups face additional barriers associated with low income and environment.

Menopause and perimenopause brings with it a host of challenging symptoms, which can last for years and, without any meaningful support available, can have a significant impact on women’s happiness and wellbeing. Sadly, in our research, women told us they experienced shame and embarrassment around many of their menopausal symptoms, particularly hot flushes at work. They also talked about lack of sleep and brain fog creating anxiety and low mood, and how gaining weight leads to poor self-image and low self-confidence.

Half the population will go through menopause yet the topic is rarely acknowledged or spoken about openly and, as a result, can often be an isolating experience for women. Menopause and perimenopause is a topic that is brushed under the carpet and left to women to sort out for themselves. There is still a sense of shame and stigma surrounding it, as it remains the ‘butt of jokes’ and perceived as a ‘weakness’ which makes even more difficult for women to reference in a work environment.

The stigma attached to the menopause transition means that many women want to hide symptoms and not discuss the real challenges they face during this time and means that the understanding and support, which could make such a difference, is not sought or provided. This urgently needs to be addressed in the workplace, to open up the conversation and effectively support women at this time of their lives.

Menopause, the Workplace and Physical Activity: the business case for change

Sport and exercise can play a pivotal role in alleviating some of the negative aspects of the menopause transition, enabling women to feel more in control of their health wellbeing and happiness. Menopause and perimenopause, is a natural time of reappraisal and as such, presents an important window of opportunity to prompt a change in behaviour towards physical activity and embed healthier habits. The benefits gained through supporting these women to prioritise their health and fitness through increased physical activity could have a significant positive impact on their work-life in both the short and longer term.

Being active provides numerous physical benefits. Regular exercise can help maintain healthy bone and muscle mass, reducing the risk of hip fractures by 68%, and improve balance, resulting in a 30% lower risk of falls amongst older adults. Exercise also helps people maintain a healthy weight, reducing the risk of Type 2 diabetes by 50%.

Women in particular have an increased risk of diseases such as cardiovascular disease following the onset of menopause, which may be prevented through regular physical activity[10]. Regular physical activity also reduces the risk of breast cancer, which is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in women, and osteoarthritis, which 50% of women suffer from in old age compared with 25% of men and is directly linked to the loss of oestrogen during menopause[11].

There is significant evidence to suggest that physical activity can improve sleep quality, which women in our research highlighted as a huge issue. There is also emerging evidence that physical activity during midlife may prevent Alzheimer’s and dementia, which is the top cause of death for women in the UK and an enormous burden on social care[12].

Sport and exercise also have social and emotional benefits. It reduces the risk of depression, which is reported to be almost twice as prevalent in women compared to men[13]. In the right environment, physical activity and sport connect women and girls with others and help them feel less isolated. It can also increase self-esteem: women in our study told us they felt good about themselves when they made time for exercise. It simply made them feel happier[14].

Crucially, our research has found that active women are more resilient in coping with menopausal symptoms and using physical activity to manage them[15]. Women who do not achieve the Chief Medical Officer’s recommended amount of physical activity (150 minutes per week of moderate to vigorous activity), on the other hand, reported more symptoms and a lower quality of life during menopause transition.

Employers are also missing out on the benefits of physical activity. Physical exercise stimulates the development of new mitochondria, producing more energy for physical exertion, but also more energy for your brain, boosting mental output[16]. One study found that “sit less, move more” interventions in the workplace effectively reduced lost workday productivity[17] and a study by Leeds Beckett University found workers who spent 30 to 60 minutes at lunch exercising saw an average performance boost of 15%[18].

Progress has been made in supporting women through maternity with designated policies and a supporting culture, yet during menopause transition they have been forgotten. A British Menopause Society survey found 47% of women who have taken a day off work due to menopausal symptoms said they wouldn’t tell their employer the real reason[19]. Only around 1 in every 20 women aged 40-65 in work are aware of their employer offering proactive policies or support to women around menopause[20].

It is clear that society needs to do more to support and empower women at this stage in their life not just because it is the right thing, the equitable thing but because it is detrimental to businesses and the economy to continue to turn a blind eye. Around 5% of women will find it very difficult to cope with work during their menopausal transition and around 10% of women who experience severe menopausal symptoms actually leave employment[21].For those who stay at work, 94% said it affected their work, with half taking time off work[22]. Companies will continue to lose high quality employees at an alarming rate and reduce their profitability if they fail to recognise the urgency to address the needs of women at this life stage. 

Menopause, the Workplace, and Physical Activity: an active opportunity

The desire to be more active during menopause transition is high, with 84% of women who do not meet physical activity guidelines reporting that they would like to be more active[23]. Women recognise the impact of exercise on their mental and physical wellbeing but need support to be more active[24]. Because menopause and perimenopause is a time of reappraisal, it can be a key time to engage inactive women in physical activity habits that they will take into later life. The workplace could potentially have such an important role to play at this time of natural reappraisal.

For many women, their working day changed significantly during lockdown and created opportunities to take exercise. During lockdown, physical activity took on heightened importance because it was one of the few reasons people were allowed to leave the house. In our survey of 100 women during the first lockdown, 46% said doing exercise had become more of a priority in their lives and 61% said they would put more effort into being fit and active once the lockdown was over. Having experienced the mental and physical benefits of exercise first-hand, these women will have a natural motivation to be more active[25]. Previously, physical activities were often restricted to a before or after work activity, when tiredness and home commitments would often prevent women from taking part. But, in our 2020 Lockdown Research, we found that many women were finding new ways to build physical activity into their days because they were not commuting to work and had more flexibility[26].

Employers have a unique opportunity to assist women in menopause transition with increasing their physical activity levels. While HR professionals told us that they do not always have creative ideas beyond gym membership and classes, we heard that small adjustments like being able to wear sports clothes whilst working, made for a much easier transition from desk to activity. Finally, the accessibility of simple activities such as walking, running, cycling and online classes which did not require specific timetabling and could be done individually, worked particularly well. All of which are important learnings which could be applied in the re-set of the working environment.

Taking the first step to getting active again can feel very daunting. There is a real need to help women kick-start their fitness programme.  The initial reaction for many was that it felt ‘too late’ to start something new and brought with it a fear of being watched and judged by others.  It is therefore an important time to reframe the ‘quality of life’ expectancy, challenging the myth that it’s too late to get back into exercise and fitness, even if you haven’t been active for a while. This is an important message which can be communicated through the workplace, together with providing opportunities to take those first steps back into exercise with the right sort of activities that women in menopause can enjoy and feel good at.

The overwhelming response to the experience of exercising was hugely positive, illustrating the power of allowing women to experience the benefits and enjoyment of physical activity first-hand. Research showed that, even women who had previously been inactive for a long time were able to engage and enjoy the experience, once they got over that first hurdle and found something they wanted to do.

Menopause, the Workplace, and Physical Activity: recommendations

The workplace can play an important role in supporting women in this stage of their lives to re-appraise and invest in their own health and wellbeing.

Workplaces should be required by government to put in place a menopause policy, in the same way they have maternity policies. Policies should recognise that women may need additional consideration, support and adjustments during perimenopause and menopause, but also seek to create an open culture whereby menopause transition can be comfortably discussed.

Being able to have a conversation and being supported by other women and men, of all age groups, will go a long way towards improving the experience of menopause transition in the workplace. It is important that this is not confined to a challenge that women tackle in isolation, but that they have the support and understanding required form their managers and younger colleagues.

This helps lessen the taboo and stigma surrounding menopause transition, bringing a responsibility for everyone to continue this conversation in their homes and lives as husbands, brothers, friends and children. It enables women to make positive choices about their health and wellbeing, including committing time to physical activity, without fearing menopause will be misunderstood and perceived negatively as an embarrassment or weakness.

Wherever possible, employers should be encouraged to create time and support women to exercise during the working day. Women in midlife are often time poor and prioritise others’ needs over their own. Investing in their own fitness and wellbeing is often bottom of the list and it can then feel like an additional burden. The changes to working patterns post pandemic provide an opportunity to reset and do things differently, by structuring opportunities during the working day for time to be taken for exercise and activity, or combining work and movement together for example, walking and meeting at the same time. While we recognise that many women are employed in shift work or labour-intensive jobs such as caring and cleaning, for many there will be natural activities during the working day that can combine easily with exercise or getting away from your desk and outside.

Taking into account the specific needs of women experiencing menopause transition, employers should also create organisation-wide physical activity plans and work with the sport sector to identify opportunities within the working day to embed physical activity. Flexible working should be made the norm wherever possible, as we believe that this would enable women in midlife and menopause to find time to participate in sport and physical activity. The promised Employment Bill provides a unique opportunity to make truly flexible working the norm and establish a responsibility on employers to encourage and enable the physical activity of their employees.

Workplaces should recognise the opportunity they have to build confidence in women looking to get active, through supportive workforce communities. The power of women supporting other women has been shown to be incredibly motivating when it comes to sport and exercise. This feeling of ‘being it together’ is particularly powerful when women are thinking about taking that first (often daunting) step back into exercise and have perhaps been inactive for a long period of time.  Entry level programmes which are inspiring, accessible and relevant, are particularly appropriate help take that first step to kick start fitness, which can feel like a massive hurdle, particularly for women just getting back their fitness. The social side of exercise and connection with others makes it fun and is often the glue that sustains activity over the long term.

September 2021

[1] Menopause and the workplace | NHS Employers

[2] The rise and rise of women’s employment in the UK - Institute For Fiscal Studies - IFS

[3] Newson Health

[4] WORKPLACE – menopausesupport.co.uk

[5]. Facts about carers 2015 - Carers UK

[6] Half of ‘sandwich generation’ have under 35 minutes a day to themselves - Aviva plc

[7]Women over 50 hit by 'triple whammy' of work, childcare & social care | IPPR

[8] Women in Sport (2021) Inspiring Women to be Active During Midlife and Menopause

[9] Women in Sport (2018) Menopause, Me and Physical Activity

[10] Menopause, Me and Physical Activity.pdf

[11] Royal Osteoporosis Society

[12] Physical exercise and dementia | Alzheimer's Society (alzheimers.org.uk)

[13] World Health Organisation, Physical Activity and Women

[14] Women in Sport (2021) Inspiring Women to be Active During Midlife and Menopause

[15] Menopause, Me and Physical Activity.pdf

[16] Exercise training increases mitochondrial biogenesis in the brain (physiology.org)

[17] Impact of a workplace 'sit less, move more' program on efficiency-related outcomes of office employees - PubMed (nih.gov)

[18] (PDF) Exercising at work and self-reported work performance (researchgate.net)

[19] BMS

[20] WORKPLACE – menopausesupport.co.uk

[21]Newson Health

[22] Newson Health

[23] Women in Sport (2018) Menopause, Me and Physical Activity

[24] Women in Sport (2018) Menopause, Me and Physical Activity

[25] Women in Sport (2020) Lockdown Research - Implications for Women's Participation

[26] Women in Sport (2020) Lockdown Research - Implications for Women's Participation