Why it's time to talk about menopause at work

Conversations about the ageing workforce have tended to overlook how ageing is experienced differently across genders, but that labour market dynamics will force a change.

More employers are now starting to see that supporting women through menopause benefits not only their staff members, but the bottom line as well.

At a glance

  • Workplace policies around menopause are rare and typically only found in Australia and the UK.
  • Research indicates that about 45 per cent of women consider retirement or an extended break from work when going through menopause.
  • Many women cite fear of discrimination and a lack of understanding and support from their workplaces as primary concerns.

When Kim Lion began to experience symptoms of menopause in her late 40s, she did what very few women in the workforce would even consider doing – she told her boss.

“He was the CEO, and he’d only been in the role for a couple of weeks,” says Lion, head of culture and leadership at IPG Mediabrands. “I thought that even saying the word ‘menopause’ at work would make me stumble, but I wanted to do it for the sake of other women experiencing it and for the sake of our future workforce.

“I told him that it was affecting me, and that I believed we needed to take a position as an organisation. Basically, I presented it as a business case.”

Lion’s timing could not have been better. The ageing profile of labour markets in many industrialised countries coincides with an increase in women’s workforce participation and a growing push among organisations to pursue diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.

Women over the age of 50 now represent an increasingly large portion of the workforce. Data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, for instance, shows the employment-to-population ratio for 65-year-old women in 2020 was 35.6 per cent. This compares to just 7 per cent in 1980 and about 10 per cent in 2000.

To support the contribution – and longevity – of women in the workplace, attitudes toward “the change” will simply need to change.

No more secrets

Menopause is not a medical condition or an illness. It is a normal stage of life for half of the world’s population that occurs at the end of their natural reproductive years.

The average age of menopause onset is 51, but it can occur earlier and, for some women, may be induced by medical treatments such as surgery or chemotherapy. Most women will experience menopausal symptoms due to hormonal changes.

This may include hot flushes, night sweats, headaches, anxiety, depression, lowered self-esteem, loss of confidence and difficulty concentrating.

Thea O'ConnorThe severity and duration of menopausal symptoms vary, and they may begin during a transition phase called perimenopause.

About 60 per cent of women will have mild symptoms for about four to eight years, while 20 per cent will have no symptoms at all. For another 20 per cent, symptoms may be severe and continue into their 60s or later.

Menopause carries an air of secrecy that has been almost universal, especially in the workplace, in part because its signs and symptoms differ among women.

Thea O’Connor, wellbeing specialist and creator of the [email protected] training program, says the taboo surrounding menopause can exacerbate its frequently challenging symptoms.

“I’ve interviewed about 50 women about their experience with menopause, and the standout themes are around secrecy and isolation, and feeling like they had to hide the experience of going through menopause at work,” O’Connor says.

A fear of discrimination causes many to avoid discussing menopause at work.

“There has been a stigma or an unconscious bias that you aren’t at your career peak anymore.”

A business case for change

Professor Gavin Jack, associate dean research impact and professor of management at Monash University, is part of the core research team behind Women, Work and the Menopause, a program of academic study to explore the experiences of menopause for professional women.

He says that conversations about the ageing workforce have tended to overlook how ageing is experienced differently across genders, but that labour market dynamics will force a change.

“There have been calls to pay better attention to the fact that more women are joining or active in the labour market and delivering valuable contributions,” he says. “How can the government and organisations support them to contribute for longer?”

O’Connor says the demographic argument is supported by a business case for making menopause a workplace issue.

“It can help more women reach senior levels in organisations, and research shows that when you’ve got more women at the top, the organisation performs better. But recent research suggests that 45 per cent of women going through menopause considered retiring or taking a break from work. Somewhere in the range of 4 per cent to 10 per cent actually do.

“I’ve interviewed about 50 women about their experience with menopause, and the standout themes are around secrecy and isolation, and feeling like they had to hide the experience of going through menopause at work... There has been a stigma or an unconscious bias that you aren’t at your career peak anymore.” Thea O'Connor, wellbeing specialist

“It’s the silence, not just the symptoms that make work untenable for some.”

Sydney Colussi, researcher at the University of Sydney, is part of a team studying international menstrual and menopause workplace policies.

Colussi says menopause policies are rare and her team have only found them to exist in the UK and Australia.

The UK is leading the way on this issue. In early June, for instance, a UK parliamentary debate on support for people experiencing menopausal symptoms was held to help inform the development of a Women’s Health Strategy.

Meanwhile, Standard Chartered Bank has recently partnered with the Financial Services Skills Commission to explore how the menopause transition affects women working in financial services and their progression to senior roles.

“One of the first companies that we know of to introduce a menopause policy is the UK’s Channel 4,” says Colussi.

“It was introduced on World Menopause Day [18 October] in 2019 and the whole purpose was to try to empower workers to ask for reasonable adjustments, so they could ease menopause symptoms in the workplace without any sort of embarrassment. They were hoping to create a more open culture on this issue.”

CPA Library resource: Diversity at work: the practice of inclusion. Read now.

A normal workplace issue

Colussi stresses that the design and implementation of menopause policies require careful consideration. There is a risk that ill-considered policies may exacerbate gender discrimination and reinforce stereotypes that women are somehow less capable at work.

“There’s a concern that policies can position menopause as a problem,” she says. “The truth is that menopause is experienced in different ways, and some people might find symptoms debilitating, but others might not find it a problem at all.”

Jack adds that, for some women, menopause it a deeply private matter.

“Some women feel it has no business in the workplace, but our research shows that’s not the view for most.”

Jack says embedding support into existing practices and frameworks, such as occupational health and wellbeing, or diversity and inclusion, may help to normalise menopause in the workplace.

“In the interviews we’ve done, often women are saying that they don’t want a spotlight on menopause, necessarily. They want to be able to access support, but just to be seen as a normal part of being an employee in an organisation, rather than something needs to be fixed or managed.”

This has been the approach at IPG Mediabrands since Lion approached her boss about her own menopause symptoms. The company employs 750 people and, while very few are in the average age bracket for menopause, Lion says the company’s goal is to be seen as “menopause friendly”.

“We want women to be able talk to their managers when they’re experiencing symptoms and to make reasonable adjustments that are unique for them,” says Lion.

“In my case, I experienced dreadful brain fog, and I was able to manage that with my CEO and my team directly by saying, ‘I’m not going to be making great decisions today’.

“It didn’t mean I needed to have time off,” adds Lion. “I just knew what type of work I needed to adjust to on those days. We’re also encouraging this approach for new parents who may not be getting much sleep.”

A powerful change

In addition to workplace training in menopause, O’Connor assists in drafting policies that she says double as an education document.

“They also spell out who is responsible for what when it comes to creating a menopause friendly workplace,” she says.

“For instance, it’s the organisation’s responsibility to create an environment that’s safe, healthy and free from discrimination. It’s the responsibility of line managers to help their staff do their job and to be ready to have a supportive conversation. It’s the responsibility of employees to manage their health as best as they can, and it remains their choice if they want to talk about it with their manager.”

O’Connor adds that organisations have a lot to gain by making menopause a workplace issue.

“Often women are saying that...they want to be able to access support, but just to be seen as a normal part of being an employee in an organisation, rather than something that needs to be fixed or managed." Professor Gavin Jack, Monash University

“We need to recognise that even though menopause itself might be turbulent, it’s an important pathway into what can be a really powerful stage of life for women that workplaces can benefit from,” she says.

“Women often talk about the upsides of getting through this life stage,” adds O’Connor. “They can feel an inner sense of confidence like they’ve never felt before. They can be much more willing to speak their mind and less willing to tolerate bad behaviour. They could be a power to be reckoned with and an amazing asset to an organisation, but we’ve got to see beyond the symptoms of this temporary life stage into where this is taking women.”

How QTU is becoming a menopause friendly workplace

The Queensland Teachers’ Union (QTU) is among the first workplaces in Australia to take an organisational approach to becoming menopause-friendly.

Planning for QTU’s Menopause Project began in 2019, and the findings are informing how the organisation improves conditions for menopausal as well as peri- and post-menopausal women in their workplaces.

Penny Spalding, assistant secretary, women and social welfare issues at QTU, describes the approach as “two pronged”.

“It’s for us as an organisation with 120 employees, but we are also conscious of futureproofing our membership of close to 48,000, which is a feminised workforce as well,” she says.

QTU has conducted a survey to measure employees’ understanding of menopause and held voluntary information sessions with the aim of sharing facts and debunking myths.

“A lot of my male colleagues found it really helpful for supporting the women in their private lives and work lives,” says Spalding. “We also found that it helped fill a knowledge gap in younger women in understanding perimenopause.”

Spalding says management training has focused on the provision of appropriate adjustments and “framing everything with a positive light”.

“It’s important that menopause is not seen as a deficit or something bad that needs to be managed. It should be about a positive framework, and conversations should always be initiated by employees, not their managers.”

QTU’s flexible work policy now includes the experience of menopausal symptoms as a reason for requesting flexible work hours. Reasonable workplace adjustments also include moving workstations to being closer to bathrooms and the provision of desktop fans to assist with temperature control.

“We have menopause posters up in the office to create those visual prompts about who you can go to and where you can get information,” says Spalding. “It’s all about creating a safe place where it’s OK to talk about it.”

December/January 2022
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