Menopause at work
Menopause is a fact of life. All women will have one, and many are now working while they do. Until recently, menopause was not discussed privately or socially, let alone in the workplace. Culturally we have in the past dismissed menopause as a ‘women’s problem’ and so considered it unsuitable subject matter for the workplace.
With the recent increasing profile of menopause in the media, it is unsurprising that this attitude is rapidly becoming outdated. This generation of women, whether it be through ambition or necessity, wish to continue with their careers through their 40s, 50s and 60s – and so managing their menopause at work is part of this process.
On average women will experience their menopause between the ages of 45 and 55, albeit one in every 100 will experience theirs before the age of 40. The current estimates are that it will last anywhere from four to eight years, although it’s not uncommon for it to last considerably longer. It is estimated that there are currently 13 million women in the UK going through their menopause transition. Aligned with the fact that women aged 50 to 64 are the fastest-growing demographic in the workplace, this is an issue which is not going to go away.
Each woman’s experience is as unique as her fingerprint, with a wide range of variability around symptoms, severity and duration. Menopause at work, therefore, requires an adaptive and flexible approach, which can be challenging for both HR and management when combined with previous and changing social norms and expectations.
For many women, the menopause occurs just at the point they have their eye on the next big push into senior or board-level management. They are approaching the peak of their career, with considerable industry knowledge and experience. If they had children, they would have had to manage and negotiate the complex and opposing needs of a career, childcare and motherhood. This will have given them skills which are rare and sought after in today’s rapidly changing working environment.
The menopause can severely affect women’s confidence in their ability to do their job, with psychological, emotional and physical symptoms. Women struggle to keep the façade of continuity in place, the effort of which is damaging, stressful and exacerbates existing symptoms. The longevity of this phase makes the menopause at work a unique issue. Unlike menstruation or pregnancy, the menopause is, by comparison, an endurance event. Symptoms are experienced night and day, every day for years. When put into context, it is unsurprising that women need to request additional support or adjustments from their employer.
Herein lies a major issue for women. Many feel uncomfortable raising the menopause at work for fear of criticism or ridicule, or that it will negatively impact their professional reputation or career prospects. The TUC, a UK trade union, reports that almost a quarter of women feel embarrassed discussing menopause at work.
The CIPD report that 30% of women surveyed had taken time off work due to their symptoms, yet 75% said that they could not tell their manager the reason for their absence. Ultimately, 10% of women leave paid employment altogether due to their menopause symptoms. Despite the drive to gender equality, we are still brushing menopause under the carpet.
Part of women’s hesitation to come forward and openly discuss their symptoms is our historical perception of menopausal women. Women were previously thought of as ‘over the hill’, a bit mad (even hysterical), unreasonable, difficult or simply past it. These terms jar with us now but go back even ten years, and they were common labels in popular culture. Roll forward to today, and there are very few positive menopausal role models for women to associate with. The fear of these labels runs across industries and cultures. The reality is that the menopause is a transition from the first to the second phase of womanhood. It does not last forever. Women report that once the symptoms subside, they have greater focus and are more single-minded in the pursuit of their ambitions. These are the women that businesses need within their management and executive roles.
What organisations can do
To achieve this, organisations need to shake off outmoded approaches to women and the phases of their life. They need to recognise menopause as normal in all its variations and be open to offering its female staff adjustments appropriate to their needs for this period in their career. This can only be done through education and awareness at all levels, without exception. Those who have a positive and empathetic approach enable women to open the conversation without fear of ridicule. It engenders loyalty and creates a female-friendly workforce. It also encourages a culture of psychological safety, which in turn has been proven to be the basis of high performing teams.
Modern and progressive organisations recognise people as complex individuals who at times, require support and assistance. Wellbeing is now an expected part of the employee package and is recognised as a key factor in recruitment and retention. There is, however, nothing in this sphere that has such a wide-ranging impact across the entire workforce, consistently and with such longevity, as the menopause.
The time is long overdue for the stigma of menopause in the workplace to be removed. Women experiencing their menopause at work should be able to freely talk about it and expect understanding, empathy and support from their colleagues and management. Second phase women are powerhouses. We want them with us – growing, leading and inspiring. Starting today.
Kate Usher is a highly experienced Menopause and Relationships Coach, working with women on the successful creation, development and growth of personal and career relationships during this period of intense and unpredictable change. She combines her extensive experience as a corporate change leader and her Menopausal journey to deliver a uniquely positive approach. For more information visit Kate’s website.