Menopause and the workplace

Too many women endure symptoms in silence – and their careers then suffer

Menopause and the workplace

Recently, a “Menopause Workplace Pledge” campaign launched in the U.K., calling on employers to support colleagues going through menopause in the workplace.

Launched by Wellbeing of Women in partnership with HELLO! Magazine and healthcare company Bupa, employers who take the pledge – such as KPMG, HSBC and PwC – commit to:

  • recognizing that menopause can be an issue in the workplace and women need support
  • talking openly, positively and respectfully about menopause
  • actively supporting and informing employees affected by menopause

It’s a topic that still makes many people uncomfortable, but a rise in awareness and a lowering of stigma are leading to more initiatives around the issue – particularly when it comes to the workplace.

And the change is needed, judging by one recent survey: A majority (99 per cent) of women in the U.K. felt menopause, or the months and years leading up to it, had a huge impact on their careers. One-third described the impact as “significant,” found the survey of 3,800 women from the not-for-profit Newson Health Research and Education.

Physical, mental effects of menopause

Menopause is well described as a transition, as opposed to an event, and is technically the last time someone has a menstrual period. But people don’t know that until they’ve gone the full year, so the time before menopause is known as perimenopause, says Jennifer Blake, CEO of the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada.

“It's the loss of ovarian hormones, particularly estrogen, that leads to the symptoms that women experience” she says. “And it can feel like a bit of a roller coaster.”

Recent data has suggested that symptoms can start up to 10 years before menopause takes place, though the median is 4.5 years, says Nese Yuksel, a professor in the Faculty of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Alberta.

Roughly 75 to 80 per cent of women will experience some symptoms, especially vasomotor ones, such as hot flashes and night sweats. For about 25 to 30 per cent of women, the symptoms are severe, to the point that they're going to want to seek treatment, such as hormone therapy, she says.

Other common symptoms include fragmented sleep, muscle and joint pain, migraines, fatigue, urinary incontinence and infections, and vaginal changes such as dryness and heavy periods.

“Perimenopause is a time of major hormone fluctuations; estrogen can be high and low, and progesterone could be low… that can lead to irregular bleeding; it could be heavy bleeding, it could be either farther apart or closer together,” says Yuksel.

There’s also a mental health side to menopause, but this is complex, says Blake.

“We know that there can be an increase in some symptomatology, and there are a few people who experience significant mental health issues as they go through the major kinds of hormone adjustments… for example, postpartum depression,” she says. “But for most women, the most common things that people described are a little bit of irritability, maybe forgetfulness; if women are not sleeping well, that's going to potentially impact how they're functioning during the day.”

Because of all this, women can have a lot of issues with cognition and thought, and they talk about the “brain fog,” says Yuksel.

“You may not be able to function as well; it can also affect your concentration and memory. So, if you have a job that requires a good memory and thinking, it can cause a lot of issues… and then there's loss of confidence because you're not able to function in the same way. So it's this whole vicious cycle that happens.”

Getting past the stigma of menopause

Another challenge for menopausal women is the stigma surrounding this time in their life. Not only is there discomfort around discussing the health issues, but there’s bias around aging.

There are often jokes made around menopause symptoms, such as the hot flashes, says Yuksel.

“It's time to change that. And that's why a lot of that work out of the U.K. regarding… the work environment [is important] because it's changing that stigma.”

Menopause gets mixed in with a lot of other things in society that are problematic for women, says Blake.

“Many women feel that they just become invisible after menopause. And, certainly, there's so much emphasis on youth, particularly for women, whereas men, there's always been more value [placed] on the slightly greying temples… women tend not to be given that same respect with aging in our culture.”

However, there are some countries and cultures where people don’t laugh at the thought of menopause because it’s considered a time in a woman’s life where they’re freed of the responsibilities of childcare, she says, “and you are an elder in your community and are accorded all the respect that would go with an older man. So I think that how we approach it as a society becomes very important.”

Widespread ageist views may be responsible for persistent negative beliefs and attitudes about older workers and their role in the workforce, according to a report from Employment and Social Development Canada.

Employer support for women

Aside from the physical and mental challenges, the potential impact on a woman’s career is cause for concern.

One in five women passed on the chance to go for a promotion that they would have otherwise considered, while 19 per cent reduced hours and 12 per cent resigned, found the Newson survey.

Almost six in 10 (59 per cent) took time off work due to symptoms and 18 per cent were off for more than eight weeks. Why? Reduced efficiency (45 per cent) and poor quality of work (26 per cent) were the top reasons.

Also of note: Half of those who took at least eight weeks off work resigned or took early retirement.

But some employers are starting to take notice. Online fashion retailer ASOS, for example, launched new benefits for employees going through “health-related life events” and these included menopause, pregnancy loss and fertility treatment.

“This new policy framework will enable ASOSers to take the time away from work that they need, while also increasing awareness of the impact of such common life events, and breaking down the taboos around these issues and taking time off when it is needed.”

It’s definitely important for employers to recognize that this is an issue that negatively impacts a person’s perspectivity and their quality of life – especially for women in leadership roles, says Yuksel.

“It's a topic that it should be OK to discuss. And [it’s about employers] giving a bit more flexibility or understanding or… making changes in their workday, or if [workers] really are suffering and need to take some time off or whatever it is, that is recognized as any other mental health disorder or any other chronic condition.”

Changing the work structure, providing sick leave or allowing work from home can all help people cope better if they’re suffering and less productive, or losing confidence in their abilities, she says.

“It's more just the recognition and that it's OK to talk about it and it's OK to mention that this is an issue and to accommodate based on the individual. I don't think there's one type of accommodation, I think it's based on that individual, and what are their needs, as far as the employer understanding that and helping them through that.”

In late 2015, the European Menopause and Andropause Society (EMAS) released recommendations on how to improve conditions in the workplace for menopausal women, pushing for greater awareness among employers, along with sensitive and flexible management.

“This is a normal process and it’s not an issue that’s going to last a very long time but during that time, (it’s important) to make the workplace conditions acceptable,” said Margaret Rees, executive director.

In looking at accommodations around menopause, it speaks to the larger issue of accommodating employees at all stages of their life, says Blake, “whether they're trying to get pregnant; you're going through having a new baby at home and having to adjust to that; you're going through having adolescents; you're going through having elderly or aging parents with their needs. And all of those things can affect both men and women.”

It’s about personalizing how you care for your workforce, she says.

“If an employee approaches you and they're having a very disruptive experience with menopause, then the question is: What can you do to help them through that, knowing that menopause is a bit like a valley, and you come out on the other end?... It's really putting the humanity into how we handle our human resources. And if COVID hasn't taught us that, then we weren't listening.”

Managers are also important, not only in reflecting on their own circumstances, but in providing understanding and support, she says.

“Then you've established a climate of trust and you've established a climate of being a workplace that understands that its employees are not interchangeable, they're really valuable resources.”

Organizations that support personal wellbeing are seeing staff report higher mental health scores, according to a recent survey.

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