Women experiencing menopause during their careers is a natural part of life, yet too often employers don't provide the needed employee support around this issue.
One of the many issues that prevents full engagement of mid-life women in workplaces is the taboo topic of menopause, despite that 59% of women experiencing menopausal symptoms said it had a negative impact on their work, according to Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD) in the U.K.
Further, there is no mainstream information or discussion on the topic, which leads to a lack of understanding of how this biological transition and its corresponding side effects can impact women at work, says Pat Duckworth, author of five books on menopause. In 2020, in part because of her dissatisfaction with the slow progression of menopause conversation in the workplace, Duckworth wrote her fifth book Menopause: Mind the Gap: The value of supporting women’s wellness in the workplace.
Impact of menopause side effects on women at work
The reason menopause is such a huge challenge for mid-life women is because it often spans a period of more than a decade, beginning with a significant transition around age 45 called perimenopause. Common physical and cognitive effects are hot flashes, brain fog, and disrupted sleep patterns because of hormonal fluctuations; and these, in turn, can cause low energy and extreme fatigue.
Further, the pandemic and ensuing lockdowns has added to many workers’ stress levels, and, for menopausal women has resulted in a downward-spiraling multiplier effect with the extra anxiety and loss of sleep reinforcing worsening fatigue. All of this, naturally, has the potential to adversely impact these women’s workplace performance.
Several professional women interviewed for this article say this situation also can have a devastating psychological impact on their careers by bringing about a loss of confidence and a feeling of being unable to deal with the side effects of this multi-year biological transition. More specifically, these women explain that recurring moments of brain fog that hampered their ability to think on their feet impaired their confidence and had them “questioning if I could do the job” over a series of months and years.
Simple workplace support options
Using simple, inexpensive accommodations, many workplaces can make this transition much easier for their employees who are dealing with side effects of menopause. For example, Duckworth advises to employers to:
- provide fans or access to a more ventilated area — This ensures that women can get cool when needed;
- allow easy access to drinking water and restrooms — While many employees take these items for granted, not every employer makes it easy for women to access these facilities.
- offer flexible working hours — Due to significant sleep disruptions, making adjustments in when women start and end their workday will allow them to maintain their performance and have more control to respond to the daily changes as needed.
Because of the long-standing stigma associated with the topic of menopause among society, there also is much work needed to create a workplace culture where there is no penalty for discussing this biological life change and its impact on women at work. Employers can help facilitate these discussions in several ways, such as:
- establishing a safe space among communities of women — The first step is encouraging women, particularly at the executive level, to open up about this natural evolution in their bodies — first, with each other, and eventually, with others, up and down the organizational chart. Intergenerational groups, such as employee resource groups, can be established where women across the reproductive lifespan can learn from and support one another. Chris Bobel, a professor of Women’s, Gender & Sexuality studies at UMass Boston, advises employees to seek support from management to create physical spaces to normalize this discussion. Menopause cafes are one such space, where people gather to relax and discuss menopause, Bobel says.
- acknowledging menopause at all levels of the organization — Strategies, such as assigning a menopause champion at the senior management level signals permission to discuss it. For example, Evie Gerontis, HR director at Genos Capital, says that when she is experiencing a hot flash while leading a meeting, she pauses, then states she is “flashing”, and resumes speaking when it is done. Employers can also offer training and workshops to build awareness of this issue in the workplace, and also provide conversation guides for managers, such as the CIPD’s guidance to people managers.
- offering a menopause guideline or policy — Because many of the physical manifestations of menopause are common with other health issues, such as stress and anxiety, it is easy for employers to pull together strands from other programs to create a resource that specific supports menopause. Employers should also convery to their women employees that this support exists, both as a signpost of an inclusive culture and an acknowledgment of this major life transition.
Fortunately, there are positive signs of progress on removing the stigma of menopause. For example, startups and venture capitalists are increasingly recognizing that medical, health, and wellness treatment of menopause is a $600 billion market — and an opportunity. Yet this is still a way to go. “Only 5% of femtech startups address menopause,” says Adrianna Samaniego, an investor with the Female Founders Fund. “Fertility is nine months, typically, but menopause can last anywhere from four to 30 years.”
Law firms, too, are trying to move this issue forward. Clifford Chance enhanced its staff and lawyer support offerings to include menopause and fertility issues. And many professional women like Bobel and Gerontis are owning their own experiences. Bobel says that when she experiences a hot flash while teaching a university class, she says to her predominantly 18- and 19-year-old students, “I need a minute… I am having a hot flash.”
She then lets it pass, and picks up right where she left off as if it’s the most natural thing in the world… which it is.