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How We'll Win in 2019

Women and their allies are taking bold steps towards achieving gender equality in the workplace. Here’s how they’re moving us forward.

Daniel Sone acquired from National Cancer Institute
Millions of women experience menopausal symptoms at work. Companies need to keep this in mind.
WE NEED TO TALK

Menopausal women aren’t being supported at work—and it’s affecting companies’ bottom line

By Aisha Hassan

This story is part of How We’ll Win in 2019, a year-long exploration of workplace gender equality. Read more stories here.

When most companies consider making allocations for women’s health, they’re mostly just thinking about one phase in her reproductive life: pregnancy and maternity. But there is another life event that is almost as disruptive and that isn’t much discussed—menopause. Without making extra considerations for employees undergoing menopause, companies risk both the wellbeing of their employees and the financial health of the firm.

Menopause is the point in time when a woman permanently stops menstruating. Though menopause medically occurs 12 months after her last period, the transition, known as perimenopause, often starts much earlier. According to the US National Institute on Aging, perimenopause typically begins between age 45 and 55, and can last between seven and 14 years. During this time, and even in the years after menopause, women can be forced to cope with disruptive physical and psychological symptoms, many of which can affect work performance.

20% of the working population is either likely to begin symptoms, or has experienced them already.

There were more than 15.5 million employed women in the 44 to 55 age bracket in 2018, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), and more than 33.2 million aged 45 and older. That means about 20% of the working population is either likely to begin symptoms, or has experienced them already, although the severity varies. A report by Harvard Medical School found that up to 50% of perimenopausal women experience hot flashes and 40% have sleep problems. The New York Times also reports that 60% of women will experience menopause-related cognitive impairment, otherwise known as brain fog. A survey by the AARP, the largest US nonprofit focused on aging, found that 84% of women said these physical and psychological changes disrupted their lives, including work; 12% found the changes debilitating.

For Karen Giblin, founder and president of Red Hot Mamas, a menopause education organization, symptoms kicked in at age 40 after she underwent a total abdominal hysterectomy and bilateral oophorectomy, meaning she had to remove her uterus, cervix, fallopian tubes, and ovaries. During that time, in 1991, she was serving as selectman, the elected head of town government, for Ridgewood, Connecticut. “The forgetfulness was incredible,” she said. “It left me feeling anxious because you’re also having these hot flashes in the public eye…and you don’t know if your face will be blood red or break out in sweats as if you’ve gone to the gym, and you have to run into the bathroom.”

That same year, Giblin started Red Hot Mamas after finding little to no resources to turn to both online or in the workplace, where her symptoms were affecting her job. Today, there’s much more information available online, but employers still aren’t doing much to support workers going through perimenopause and menopause. “Employers really aren’t doing anything to mitigate problems that come from menopause,” she said.

“Employers really aren’t doing anything to mitigate problems that come from menopause.”

This lack of understanding can make workers feel ashamed and embarrassed at work , but it also costs companies. In an effort to quantify those costs, professors at the University of Leicester compiled a comprehensive report  based on more than 100 studies on menopause published between 1990 to 2016.

They found that employers were mainly mainly affected in terms of hiring and training costs to find replacement employees if a woman had to leave work permanently, and productivity losses if workers’ symptoms were disruptive. The researchers estimate that absenteeism from menopause can cost companies over £7.2 million ($9.5 million) annually. This calculation, based on US statistics, only accounts for the most severe symptoms—there is still the case of productivity loss from less frequent symptoms, and indirect costs in the form of employees struggling. A survey by the British Menopause Society found that 45% of respondents felt their menopause systems negatively affected their work, and 47% of those who needed to take time off due to symptoms did not feel comfortable telling employers or colleagues why.

But with supportive workplace policies or even just open dialogue, this productivity loss and discomfort around discussing menopause can be reduced. And it’s important for employers, human resources, or even colleagues, not to assume that every midlife woman will have the same degree of symptoms or requires the same amount of support. “I would never want to say, ok, because you’re in your 50s, we expect you to have these problems,” said Anna Cabeca, an obstetrician-gynecologist and author of The Hormone Fix, a guide to managing menopause.

For women looking to lessen their menopause symptoms, doctors can help them find treatments like hormone replacement therapy, supplements, or even lifestyle changes. But companies should still acknowledge the issue because symptoms can still manifest in the workplace, where employed women will spend a significant portion of time. Chris Bobel, an associate professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston, told MarketWatch that ageism is one of the likely reasons why there are few workplace menopause policies. “We find [aging women] kind of disposable or marginal—so it doesn’t surprise me that something that impacts older women in particular would be not only a discomfort, but a non-concern,” she said.

There are workplace policies that can help. Employers can appoint staff advocates for menopause and make educational resources readily available, as well as access to healthy diet options and fitness plans, Cabeca suggested. These kinds of policies empower women to speak up and reach out if they need help, rather than risking stigmatizing women just because they are at midlife, she added.

In addition to opening up conversations about menopause, Kathleen Riach and Gavin Jack, both professors of management at Monash University, Australia, suggest other practical changes to support menopause where possible, such as fans and easy access to temperature control, and the option to work flexibly from home. “These steps are not just about alleviating symptoms. They are about avoiding signaling that women of a certain age are an inconvenience or less valued as employees,” Riach and Jack write in The Conversation.

While still few and far between, there are some organizations putting these ideas into practice, although Europe is generally farther ahead at doing this. The University of Leicester, the first UK university to adopt any kind of menopause policy, runs “menopause cafes” for people to openly discuss the issue. The retail company Marks & Spencer introduced a “Manage your Menopause” web page that has multimedia resources for employees, and European energy company E.ON has created a workplace guide to educate employers.

So far, however, this kind of institutional support seem more like the exception than the rule. But workplaces with resources or best practices related to menopause will become even more essential as older women make up an increasingly large portion of the working population. By 2024, the BLS estimates that there will be over 55.1 million women aged 55 and over in the US labor force—a far greater number than the 18.5 million women aged 16-24. More employers who address menopause can help employees feel more comfortable with what is ultimately a natural process. “It’s a win-win situation,” Giblin said.

Correction: An earlier version of this article outlined a workplace menopause policy that was incorrectly attributed to Shopify. The company does not have an official menopause policy, but would “treat any related situation with high care and flexibility for any employee,” a spokesperson says.

This story is part of How We’ll Win in 2019, a year-long exploration of workplace gender equality. Read more stories here.