Breaking The Taboo Of Menopause At The Workplace
Women experiencing menopause make up an ever-larger section of the workforce. But employers are not responding to their needs, or even talking about it.
Updated on Nov. 3, 2023 at 2:35 p.m.
WARSAW — Although it affects all women at some point in their lives, menopause remains a taboo subject in the workplace. While corporations are quick to organize courses on managing stress or caring for your spine, perhaps menopause, too, requires attention at work.
Kate Wyler, the fictional U.S. ambassador to the UK in the Netflix series The Diplomat, sweats profusely and constantly checks her underarms for odor. She has a lot on her mind: she is trying to prevent a war and has to pitch her ideas so that the British Prime Minister will recognize them as her own. Meanwhile the UK foreign secretary, who is infatuated with Wyler, thinks that her sweating is related to stress. He is clueless that she may be experiencing hot flashes, a symptom of peri-menopause.
Wyler's struggle will be relatable to an increasing number of working women today, and it deserves greater attention. By 2025, there will be upwards of one billion women undergoing menopause. Given that many of them will still be working, workplaces can no longer ignore the issue.
Apart from flashes and sweating, chronically disturbed sleep, fatigue, irritability, difficulties with short-term memory and concentration, muscle and joint pain, and reduced self-confidence are the most frequent symptoms of menopause.
They can impact women for a period of over five years. According to European Menopause and Andropause Society (EMAS), this can also impact women’s performance at work. The association has published several recommendations for employers on how to help employees undergoing hormonal changes.
Redesigning work for women facing menopause
For starters, they can help create awareness among people in managerial positions that the symptoms of menopause may be bothersome for some people. Management should ensure that women going through menopause do not feel discriminated against or marginalized, and HR departments should work with health experts to understand how to support them.
Companies should also assess whether working conditions – for example, shift work or fitted work clothes made of "non-breathable" fabrics – are negatively affecting them.
“Every day, 6,000 women around the world enter menopause”
There are several accommodations companies can offer to create menopause-friendly workplaces. They can, for instance, introduce employee-controlled heating or install fans on desks, switch to more comfortable work uniform, improve access to toilets and bathrooms, provide cold drinking water, offer flexible working hours, allow breaks for hot flashes, especially for customer-facing employees, and, above all, create a supportive environment that fosters an understanding of the experience of menopause.
Private companies now want in
Some companies are taking the lead in breaking the stigma around menopause. For example, menopause is openly discussed at the pharmaceutical company Theramex, which was established with the goal of supporting women's health needs.
The company's British headquarters was involved in creating a "menopause simulator", known as the MenoVest. “The men who put it on, including journalists and politicians, experienced some of the symptoms of menopause on their own skin”, says Małgorzata Jurkiewicz, medical director of Theramex Polska. “They were supposed to perform their typical professional tasks in the vest, such as hosting a program on TV”. The results were clear. “Those who took part in this social campaign described how they felt when hot flashes made them sweat. They lost self-confidence, they were distracted”, Jurkiewicz says. “I'm trying to import this vest so that Polish men can try it."
Women's Day and Menopause Day are celebrated in all Theramex branches around the world. Employees are encouraged to take part in training on women's health. “Every day, 6,000 women around the world enter menopause”, says Jurkiewicz, noting that “women around the age of 50 are the fastest-growing group of employees”. At the organizational level, we should freely talk about menopause, just as we talk about breastfeeding, Jurkiewicz notes.
A quarter of British companies have already introduced a menopause policy.
The older representatives of the millennial generation are beginning to enter the perimenopausal period, and are more aware and open about their health than any previous generation. Traditionally negative attitudes towards menopause were sustained by, for instance, many doctors dismissing the symptoms of menopause, making patients feel guilty, or telling them that it's "all about age." As if turning 50 was the end of life.
“Just a few years ago, my friends who were older than me would stress that they had no symptoms of menopause. As if it was something shameful that absolutely didn't concern them”, says Joanna, a finance specialist. For her generation, she says, the experience is very different. “I am 44 years old and my friends and I try to outdo each other with stories about the first symptoms of hormonal changes, like having completely different menstrual periods than before or dry skin. We calls ourselves the ‘peri club' since we are going through perimenopause.”
Joanna claims that she is not ashamed of going through hormonal changes at work. “If I want to put a cold compress on my neck because of hot flashes, I will just do it”, she says. “I am not going to be ashamed of menopause, because I still feel young and competent”.
In some women, the first symptoms of hormonal changes may appear as long as 10 years before their last menstrual period. This means that women in their 40s and 50s can work together to push employers to take their needs into account. EMAS encourages women to report to trade unions or HR departments what changes may help them at work. This is exactly what a group of women employees at Genentech, an American biotechnology corporation, did, declaring their symptoms openly to the head of HR. Cori Davis, who held that role, was experiencing symptoms of menopause herself. She woke up drenched in sweat the night before this meeting with the employees, which meant she couldn't sleep and was exhausted at work, according to a report by Time magazine.
Making menopause a taboo topic makes women even more afraid of this period in their lives.
Genentech now boasts a system where women going through menopause and their partners have 24/7 access to specialists and the opportunity to join a support group.
Menopause benefits are likely easier to obtain in companies that have been offering their employees subsidies for infertility treatment. HR departments in such firms understand that they have to make an effort to retain experienced employees and effectively recruit mature women.
Menopause: a topic of national importance
In 2021, the UK House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee decided to tackle the issue of menopause at work. This was a response to, among other issues, labor shortages.
An estimated 300,000 women in the UK have left work in the last five years due to menopausal symptoms.
The success of awareness-building activities (including promoting innovations such as the MenoVest) means British companies now keenly vie for a certificate identifying them as a menopause-friendly employer. A quarter of British companies have already introduced a menopause policy.
This is a critical cultural shift. If a woman living with menopausal symptoms cannot count on understanding at work, it may affect her effectiveness and relationships with other employees. According to research, making menopause a taboo topic makes women even more afraid of this period in their lives, and leads them to feel hormonal changes more intensely.
Women facing a hostile work environment are more likely to quit their jobs after the age of 50, which eats into their pension contributions. They are also more likely to take sick leave, which is a loss to their employer. Supporting people going through menopause simply pays off for companies.
Fortunately, more and more women are demonstrating that menopause does not have to disrupt what can be the professionally fertile period of their careers. As long as employers lend a hand.
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