Over the last year or two, a new word has started to be uttered in hushed tones in workplaces, often in relation to health and wellbeing or diversity and inclusion. That word, which I’ve noticed has the power to make grown adults go pale, is ‘menopause’. Even though ageism, disability, our sexual preference and even our gender identity have found a place in workplace discussions, this natural stage of the life cycle that half the population experiences has been, and largely remains, a taboo in workplaces.
As some of the working women I interviewed for my qualitative research put it:
“It felt secret and that I had to hide it. It’s not acknowledged – we are only just starting to tackle mental health at work.”
“The silence – it’s the worst thing especially when you get to the top of organisations where the percentages of women are low.”
This silence, which stems from embarrassment or a fear of being discriminated against, comes at a high personal and organisational cost. It prevents women from tapping into social and practical supports at work that can make a world of difference to their wellbeing and productivity, and it can lead to a brain drain from the organisation, if talented women feel they need to leave their jobs. 4% of working aged women said they left their jobs due to menopause according to a 2019 survey of 1,000 working-aged women conducted by BUPA UK
On the other hand, normalising conversations about menopause in the workplace and treating it like we would any other life stage or health condition that warrants some workplace support, can deliver significant benefits. These include:
Future proofing your organisation. Supporting the health and wellbeing of employees in the context of an ageing population and ageing workforce makes good business sense.
Fulfilling your legal obligation to create a healthy and safe working environment free from discrimination. Workplace conditions shown to exacerbate menopause symptoms include factors such as gendered ageism, not acknowledging menopause exists, work overload and poor temperature control.
Helping more women into senior leadership roles. Organisations that have more women at the top do better financially than those with fewer women. Offering menopause support removes one of the many barriers to advancing women into senior roles. I know of experienced women who either left their jobs or took a lower position due to menopause. The problem wasn’t just the symptoms, but inadequate information about this life stage which prevents women from getting timely treatment, together with the stress of trying to hide symptoms in a workplace that doesn’t acknowledge menopause.
Staff Loyalty and Engagement. As one senior public servant said, when she described the effect of being able to access flexible working conditions to help her manage her menopausal symptoms, “I gave back 10-fold what that organisation gave me – I was just so glad to get some support.”
Social Responsibility. It’s a humane thing to do, to allow women to work with dignity.
Whether a woman’s menopause transition is turbulent or smooth sailing, it is ushering her into a powerful new stage of life that can be characterised by authority, wisdom, depth and fearless straight talk.
Wouldn’t you like to enjoy those gifts in your workplace? If so, opening up the conversation is the first step. What menopause conversations could you start today?
Here are some free Menopause@Work resources to help you get started.
WayAhead would like to acknowledge all people who experience menopause. We believe that broadening language and understanding for the purpose of inclusivity is always a positive. To this end we would like to point out that this article focuses on the experiences of cis women.
Trans people’s experiences of menopause may be different, but are no less valid or worthy of workplace support. Trans people’s experiences of menopause can also be made more challenging by other forms of discrimination. Intersex people may also experience menopause in ways that differ from the typical experiences of women who do not have intersex variations. Workplaces should aim to have well-being resources and policies which support diversity and are informed by people with a range of experiences. More information can be found in this Menopause Tool Kit – pages 12/13.
What is menopause?
Menopause is the final cessation of a someone’s monthly period.
Perimenopause is the time leading up to the cessation of periods and can last for about four to eight years. During the perimenopausal years, a woman’s reproductive hormones are diminishing but also fluctuating, causing a range of physical and psychological symptoms that can be really challenging (a trans person may also experience this).
Not all women experience symptoms so avoid making assumptions about their experience.