Menopause and work: what are the issues?
Awareness of menopause is of growing importance to forward-thinking organizations. That’s partly because women of menopausal age are the fastest-growing demographic in the workplace. At a time when the war for talent is fierce, when skills shortages are common and when the Great Resignation is being partly driven by older workers quitting their jobs, it’s vital for organizations to attract and retain these experienced, mature workers.
Although it isn’t the case for all women, menopause can create workplace issues for many. In fact, the UK’s Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD) found that three in five menopausal women were negatively affected at work. And in the US, nearly 20% of menopausal women have quit their jobs or have considered doing so. This is a huge issue for companies - as well as impacting staff retention, it’s estimated that global menopause productivity losses are more than $150 billion each year.
Menopause-related issues are also of direct relevance to diversity and inclusion. Negative attitudes towards women experiencing menopausal symptoms can be exacerbated by simple sexism and ageism. Menopause can also coincide with the age at which women are moving into leadership and upper-tier management roles. So it’s also vital that insensitivity to menopause doesn’t stop management and boards from becoming more diverse and representative.
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What is menopause?
Menopause is when women’s periods stop because of lower hormone levels. It typically happens between the ages of 45 and 55, although it can be earlier or later. Symptoms of menopause can include:
Joint stiffness or aches
Recurrent urinary tract infections
Menopause is considered to have been reached when periods have stopped for 12 months. However, menopausal (or, more accurately, perimenopausal) symptoms can start months or years before. Not all women experience severe symptoms, but for those that do, it can be highly disruptive to all areas of life - including work.
It’s hugely important then, for workplaces to seek guidance on menopause and have both an understanding of menopause and to make the adjustments menopausal employees need. This isn’t just an essential ingredient of a positive, emotionally intelligent company culture and the right thing to do – discriminating against menopausal employees can put organizations on the wrong side of the law in some countries.
The effect of menopause at work
According to Women’s Health Concern, menopausal women report a number of difficulties at work, the most common being:
A Japanese study found that women with a higher number of menopause-related symptoms performed more poorly at work. But this isn’t inevitable - the same study also found that having a job with less stress improved performance. Of course, this doesn’t mean women should have to change their jobs because of menopause, but that companies need to work at finding ways to make roles less stressful. This could include training on how to manage stress - something that could benefit everyone, not just menopausal employees.
Rachel Suff, senior policy adviser for the CPID says: "Our guidance shows that if employers create a culture where everyone can talk openly about health issues, such as menopause, women are much more likely to feel confident about asking for the support they need to be effective in their role. Managers also need to work closely with their HR teams to understand what simple, practical adjustments can be made to help women feel more comfortable and able to manage their work."
How to create a menopause-friendly workplace
While many organizations may want to support menopausal women in the workplace, it’s not always easy to know where to start.
"It's likely that nearly every workplace in the UK has someone experiencing menopause right now but many managers are in the dark on how best to support them,” says Rachel Suff.
So, how to begin?
Educate yourself and the wider organization
A fair proportion of leaders, managers and employees won’t know much about menopause and won’t have an understanding of how it can affect women. The first step then, is education. Organizations might want to bring in external trainers with expertise on the subject, to make sure everyone’s awareness of the issues is raised. Managers will also need to be trained in how to talk about menopause in a sensitive way.
“Rather than it being a workplace taboo, line managers should be ready to treat menopause like any other health condition and have open, supportive conversations with women in their teams,” says Rachel Suff.
Create a safe space for open conversations
Menopause can feel very private and women can be reluctant to talk about it - especially if they fear discrimination because of what they’re going through. Many may also feel that there’s a stigma associated with menopause.
Three in ten women with menopausal symptoms told the CIPD they had been unable to work because of their symptoms. But three-quarters of these women felt they couldn’t tell their manager the real reason they were off work. Raising awareness and encouraging an environment where people feel they can be open about menopause will help women discuss what they’re going through and find ways of working that suit them.
Create policy around menopause
Having formal guidelines will help your organization provide the right menopause support at work. It will also reassure employees that the issue is being taken seriously. Policies for employees with menopausal symptoms might set out:
A list of available support - eg: workplace assessments to make sure the workplace environment isn’t making symptoms worse
Flexible working guidelines
Small adjustments to the workplace environment and workplace rules can help menopausal women feel much more comfortable. These might include:
Lower room temperatures
Spaces for time out
More frequent breaks
Relaxation of dress and uniform codes to allow cooler, lighter-weight clothes
Support for emotional wellbeing - for example, giving employees access to counseling and mindfulness
Option to work from another site or from home
Allowing women to adopt more flexible working patterns, so they can work when they feel at their most effective
Sadly, a survey of over 2,000 women found that only 12% asked for workplace adjustments, with 1 in 4 saying worries about how their employers would react was their reason for not doing so. Again, encouraging a policy of openness and publicizing menopause policy will help allay these fears.
Consider introducing menopause leave
Some countries, including Japan, Indonesia and South Korea, have introduced menstrual leave for employees suffering with period pains. Now campaigners are calling for specific menopause leave - which would be separate from sick leave or holiday allowance - to be introduced. A committee of MPs in the UK has recommended all public sector employees pilot and evaluate a menopause leave policy, and several private companies have announced greater flexibility around sick leave for women experiencing menopause. Initiatives like these can help keep valuable employees in the workforce, helping them to be both productive and engaged.
“Menopause is inevitable. The steady hemorrhage of talented women from our workforce, however, is not,” said Chair of the UK Women and Equalities Committee, Rt Hon Caroline Nokes MP. “Stigma, shame and dismissive cultures can, and must, be dismantled. It is imperative that we build workplaces – and a society – which not only supports those going through menopause, but encourages some of the most experienced and skilled workers in our economy to thrive.”
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