Menopause is rarely a topic of open discussion in the workplace ‒ despite the fact that nearly half of the world’s population experiences or will experience this biological transition, which marks the end of a woman’s menstrual cycle and fertility. Menopause has always been around, but menopausal women are now the fastest growing workforce demographic.
Thankfully we have started to see a shift, with some companies organising workplace webinars, changing policies and offering support at work, but it is still not changing fast enough. Before lockdown, I presented at a Legal IT Conference and had the pleasure of having dinner with the group in the evening – no surprise that out of the 50 CIO’s attending, 43 were men. During dinner one of the delegates asked me if I could shed any light on why they seemed to lose women employees in their 50’s and what they could do. I said there were two reasons – firstly when women got to this age, they started to re-evaluate their life and their career as their children may have finished university and become independent so they can think about themselves more. He nodded sagely as he considered this information. Secondly, I told him, was menopause. A few of the men on the table coughed and searched for the wine list but this enlightened man was truly interested and curious to understand more. It is so important that organisations are cognisant of the aging workforce.
Since the start of time, menopause has been demonised and used to describe this phase of a female’s life in a derogatory way. But menopause is more than a collection of physical events. It is also a psychological process that moves women into a new phase of their lives and can be an initiation into them being even better than before. It is a time of enormous growth and opportunity which is followed by something called Second Spring. The concept of Second Spring originates in Chinese Medicine and breaks life down into different segments, which depict the different phases of youth, puberty and then the winter of a woman’s life, described as surrender and emergence. Once a woman goes through the winter and the depths of menopause and moves into post-menopause it can bring many of the qualities of that first teenage spring. As they regain their energy and explore who they are again it often brings a renewed zest for life and time for reinvention. In Chinese Medicine, this time of a woman’s life is referred to as “The Second Spring,” which shows that menopause doesn’t mean in any shape or form that a woman is “past her prime.”
However, when a woman is deep in perimenopause or menopause it can be difficult to imagine how to transition through the daily experiences into a place where they feel better. Menopause and perimenopause can affect women through overwhelming symptoms, causing daily problems from anxiety, hot flushes, difficulty sleeping and more. This can have a profound impact on work and home life. I have coached many highly successful women through menopause, who have achieved great successes at work, and are now feeling so bad they told me they just wanted to throw it all away and live in a smallholding in Cornwall.
How does menopause impact work? Understandably it is hard for men to relate to this. It really needs to be experienced to realise the impact that lack of sleep, constant hot flushes, brain fog, and emotional mood swings (to name but a few symptoms) can have on a person’s ability to perform at work. And what woman wants to publicly announce she is going through a very difficult time in her life in a world where women are already fighting to maintain their place in the workplace and retain their dignity?
Women are now working well into their sixties so this is an increasing issue and the debate needs to become more public. Some women will just be able to manage it, others will experience severe and wide-ranging symptoms – for each one it is different, but others may really struggle with the effects of menopause and need additional help.
One of the problems with menopause is that it lasts such a long time that women often don’t know when they are experiencing it. They could experience a lot of psychological and mental symptoms before the physical symptoms. If they are also experiencing stress at work or at home, they may confuse this with symptoms and/or find it difficult to separate the two. This could mean that both the woman and the manager may be trying to find solutions to the wrong problems.
Below are some of the issues that women face and examples of how employers can assist in the workplace:
Hot flushes are the most common symptoms and can cause issues if the workplace temperature or ventilation is uncomfortable. If your staff have to wear protective clothing or a uniform this could make it worse.
Many women suffer from dizziness and fatigue. Water infections can become more frequent, resulting in an increased need to use the toilet.
In a lot of cases, women experience increased levels of stress due to the changes occurring in their bodies. A woman can also experience confidence issues, so heavy workloads, inflexible hours and a lack of understanding can have a huge impact.
Some women may also suffer from exhaustion, depression and anxiety attacks due to the change in their hormone levels and this may affect their ability to concentrate.
Other symptoms may include nausea, depression, irritability, indigestion and headaches which may also affect their ability to attend work.
One of the worst symptoms that most women experience is Brain Fog
Brain fog is a real thing! Brain fog is the inability to have a sharp memory or to lack a clear focus. Women just really feel like they are not themselves and they are unable to think clearly. I suffered badly with this through my menopause and it is horribly frustrating when you can’t remember the end of your sentence or find you’ve put your keys in the fridge! It can be really embarrassing for a woman when she is in the middle of an important meeting or conversation and simply cannot remember a simple word. Dehydration can cause more brain fog. Apparently, we are 25% more effective when we are properly hydrated. This is why it is so important that water is freely available. Lack of sleep will exacerbate this – apparently, the brain cleans itself when asleep but the cycle takes 8 hours – which menopausal women rarely get as they have broken sleep and night sweats interrupting the cycle.
So, what should employers be doing?
Take the taboo away from the subject so that people feel they can openly discuss it
Find a comfortable way to educate people by raising understanding and awareness of the menopause
Ensure there are guidelines or guidance documents for line managers and colleagues but also ensure managers recognise that all women may experience symptoms in a different way
Ensure managers make people feel comfortable about talking to them if they have symptoms that are impacting on them
Ensure there is access to occupational health if required
Offer appropriate reasonable adjustments and support, considering related symptoms in the workplace environment e.g., facilities and uniforms, adequate ventilation, cold drinking water, rest areas and desk fans.
Be accommodating to any flexible working requests
A change to the pattern of hours worked
Permission to perform work from home (sometimes at short notice)
A reduction in working hours
More frequent breaks
If approaching formal performance processes, consider that menopause symptoms could be classed as disablement to ensure you deal with issues in a fair and reasonable way
If there is an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) in place, regularly communicate the services that female employees might find useful
It is also important that any sickness absences related to menopause are recorded as an ongoing issue rather than a number of short-term absences which may cause the sickness absence procedure to be implemented.
Above all, we need to remember that menopause is a natural phase in a woman’s life. Some women sail through menopause, while others will need more support. And as we know that more women are now returning to work after having children, it is important for employers to ensure that they have sufficient support in place to give women the support they need through the menopause transition. And to recognise that women, during and after menopause, should not be written off as they have a huge amount to offer in the workplace.