Menopause. It occurs between the ages of 45 and 55 years on average. Of course, there are cases of early or delayed menopause, but that’s the common age gap. And so what? Well, the point is… the majority of us are still working at this age. Yes. Menopausal women also represent an increasing workforce. And we will also work for quite some time after entering menopause because retirement age is becoming a mirage; increasing year by year. So what impact does the menopause have in the workplace?
As it may be obvious, many women experience menopausal symptoms, and they don’t stop just because they’re at work! This can affect performance at work, so you’d think that extra help for these women would be available everywhere right? Yet, it’s still not common, even in 2020. The goal is to have a workplace where you can talk freely about the menopause. It is often whispered the word “transition” or “the change” as if you really have something to hide.
A study about the menopause and its impact in the workplace
As we read in Harvard business review, the average menopausal age is 51, and in the US alone there are something like 61 million women over the age of 50 in the U.S. workforce. This same category represents the fastest-growing portion of the U.K. workforce. So? This is a LARGE number of people that might not be receiving the extra support they need. Something needs to be done. There are many points to be considered.
Recent research carried out in the U.K. found that 59% of women experiencing menopausal symptoms affirmed to have had a negative impact on their work and nearly half of them found it difficult to cope with the performance or their usual tasks. 59% ! it is still a very high percentage. Too high. Another study of nearly 900 professional women found that after menopausal onset they had lowered confidence, difficulty in concentrating and poor memory, all of these associated with menopause symptoms. This caused them significant difficulties at work, as we can imagine. Other studies have shown that during menopause, since levels of oestrogen fall and testosterone levels rise, it can lead to hoarseness. At the same time, also the muscles and tissues surrounding the larynx it is likely to start to weaken, affecting the vocal cords. So, some women experience, literally, a proper loss of voice.
The CIPD Study
In the CIPD study, nearly a third of women participating said to have taken sick leave because of their menopausal symptoms. What’s really shocking, it is that only a quarter of them were able to tell their manager the real reason for their absence. Some women will often use up their holidays so as to not take any more sick leave.
This is extremely serious if you think about it. And it feels immediately that there is something wrong about it, it should not be that way. Menopause is a natural process and there is nothing you can do about it. Half of the population will undergo menopause, whether we like it or not, therefore workplace NEEDS to make specific changes to deal with it to help women keeping their job during this phase.
Menopause is a natural process and there is nothing you can do about it.
Lack of openness by a manager or even colleagues — and even worse, derision or bullying — can lead to reduced job satisfaction, unnecessary stress, anxiety and even forms of depression for women who feel unable to seek support, or feel totally unsupported. Moreover, the costs become quite high for colleagues and the organization as the overall productivity decreases and in some cases, female employees decide to leave the workforce. But why this situation? Why do women feel that they cannot speak about it? It is such a natural part of women physiology!
Basically, the most common fear preventing speaking up is the fear of being perceived negatively. If the woman decides to speak up to their line manager, this fear is higher when the manager is male, and therefore cannot relate to these feelings. But their fears are legit. Some women have reported being ridiculed, harassed, or stereotyped over the menopause. It’s not surprising that women fear openness and speaking up about it, because it may mean managers will assume a decreased performance, and might even withhold promotion or target them.
How to drive the change needed
For this taboo to be changed, all of us — and mostly company leaders — need to do three things: seek to understand, listen up, and drive changes to support appropriate structures inside the workplace. Let’s see these three points one by one.
Seek to understand
If you are a manager, and you are dealing with female employees, being knowledgeable about menopause and how it works, should simply be part of your understanding of your team. Also, it will be necessary to make the workplace a happy place and to be sure that women feel included. Then you need to ask yourself, what do you know about it and its effects on your colleagues? If you find yourself answering very little, this is for sure not enough. At this point, you need to educate yourself: you can find useful resources available specifically for people managers also through the CIPD, ACAS and other venues (there are plenty of websites and resources for managers online).
One very true thing about managers is that they don’t even imagine how intimidating it can be for employees to speak up. And this is for general matters, can you imagine for something very personal as menopause?? Managers tend to overestimate how open people deal with them and they basically assume they are better at listening than they really are because people might not be talking to them enough. So, the question you have to ask yourself is: what can I do to ameliorate? If someone raises the subject, you can pay attention, and ask in which way you can help.
If you think about it, guidance for workplaces on how to handle pregnancy is everywhere, but it is almost non-existent for menopause — what can you do to change that? You can start being proactive and starting a conversation in your organization with others who can really make the difference in policy, education, and communications. If you stay silent, then what you are doing is simply reinforcing the taboo that already exists.
In the U.K. the Civil Service is one of the first examples in doing that. A menopause network has been created and support products developed, in order to help women that are coping with symptoms at the workplace. But this remains a rarity. The objective is to create a workplace environment where menopause is acknowledged and understood. I know it takes quite a lot of steps to get there, but we need to start from somewhere. Every journey starts with a single step.
Help to Develop and Implement Policies for Menopause in the Workplace
ACAS is an employment law advice service, which gives employees and employers advice on workplace rights. They provide training to HR or employers about making the workplace better, and they also advise on how to help menopausal women! Indeed Meg Mathews has recently become an ambassador for the new Guidelines for the Menopause in the Workplace.
Menopause is one of the strongest, most impactful, and most discriminatory taboos still existing in the workplace. Let’s demolish it together!
Harvard business review: https://hbr.org/2020/02/is-menopause-a-taboo-in-your-organization?
Maturitas. 2013 Oct;76(2):155-9. doi: 10.1016/j.maturitas.2013.07.005. Epub 2013 Aug 22. Menopause and work: an electronic survey of employees’ attitudes in the UK. Griffiths A, MacLennan SJ, Hassard J.
The impact of the menopause on the voice E.D’haeseleer, H.Depypere, S.Claeys, K.van Lierde.