For many people, hiding their age at work is reflexive. Older workers often find themselves having to prove their worth and abilities, again and again, to younger bosses and co-workers. For women who have dealt with gender bias for years, aging can produce a discrimination double-whammy that impacts self-esteem, job performance, and employability.1 Fear of discrimination, lost promotions and sidelining make it nearly impossible to open a dialogue about menopause and the workplace. Is it any wonder why menopause is hardly discussed, let alone accommodated, at work?
Is It Hot in Here?
Menopausal symptoms can start many years before a woman has her very last period. This portion of time is known as perimenopause. The symptom most associated with menopause and end-stage perimenopause is hot flashes. An observational study of midlife women found that hot flashes can occur as often as 35 times a day during waking hours.2 The average workday is eight hours long, so anyway you do the math, it comes out not so great for menopausal women. To make matters worse, hot flashes can be severe, embarrassing, and exhausting. They can be a difficult symptom to hide at work.
The timing of disruptive menopause symptoms, like hot flashes, couldn’t be worse. According to the Harvard Review, menopause occurs during a critical career stage for many women.3 This is the time when women are poised to move into the long-desired leadership roles they’ve strived to obtain for years.
Of course, not every woman in the workforce is aiming for the corner office. Menopause is an inevitable stage of life for all women, meaning its effects are felt by female workers in every industry. Some are grappling with menopausal symptoms from behind a supermarket cash register. Others are trying to cross-examine a witness in court, or teach a gaggle of middle schoolers, while they’re dealing with hot flashes and other symptoms, such as forgetfulness, irritability, brain fog, and fatigue.
Menopausal symptoms can make it hard to function at work, whether you’re physically at the job or working at a computer screen at home. Increasingly, the American workforce is trying to find its way back to the office after dealing with COVID-19 for over a year. This means that many women will find themselves dealing with menopause in shared workplaces, in front of coworkers, employers, clients, and customers. Is the American workforce ready to accommodate them?
Creating a Menopause Policy in the Workplace
Workplace accommodations for menopausal women are becoming more commonplace in forward-thinking industrialized countries, such as the UK and New Zealand.4,5 Policy changes in the U.S. around this issue are still, however, woefully lacking. A Google search about American companies and their innovative, new menopause policies in the workplace is pretty much bound to turn up a goose egg.
Luckily, one of the biggest catalysts for change may be women themselves. Working women are poised to be their own cheerleaders and decision drivers around this issue. Here’s what you can do.
Talk About Menopause
It wasn’t so long ago that pumping rooms for breastmilk at work were nothing more than a longed-for fantasy. It took women talking, asking, and making a case for this type of change that eventually turned it into national policy.
Getting comfortable with menopause is critical in order to advocate for the changes that you and other women need in the workplace. To do that, you need to talk about it.
If you’re an employer going through menopause yourself, be honest when you experience brain fog, fatigue, or a hot flash. Normalize the conversation about the experience in a professional way.
If you’re a professional mentor to other women, talk to them about your experience with symptoms at work, and provide a supportive space for them to ask questions or share their own experiences. Being a menopause role model will help make it easier for others to navigate this time of life, whether they’re currently menopausal or will be someday.
If you’re an employee going through menopause, be honest and matter of fact if you feel less than your best at work. If you need to take time off due to menopausal symptoms, say so, rather than making up an excuse. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need at work. This may be as simple as requesting an electric fan for your desk, or a cool room where you can take a private break if needed.
Encourage a Menopause Friendly Workplace
There are currently around 61 million employed women of menopausal age in the U.S.6 Whether you manage a Fortune 500 company or work for the corner store, you probably have co-workers or employees going through menopause. Be observant to their needs and do your best to create a transparent work environment that encourages conversation.
Managers should consider providing accommodations for employees, such as flex time and working virtually. Giving employees control over the temperature in their working space can also help. In fact, studies7 indicate that having this type of autonomy and control over the workplace environment helps to reduce menopause symptoms at work. These changes can have a positive impact that may increase productivity and morale, as well as potentially reduce sick leave.
Be aware of gender and age bias in yourself and in others. You or your colleagues may have unknowingly bought into the cultural stereotypes of aging and menopausal women. Consider providing or requesting comprehensive training on menopause in the workplace to educate yourself and the rest of the team.
If you don’t know much about menopause, learn, so you can better understand what it is and what it isn’t. The North American Menopause Society’s Menopause Guidebook is a great place to start.
Treat Your Menopause Symptoms
Taking steps to change the way your company and team approach menopause is huge, but there are also ways to manage your personal experience with menopause. According to Bonafide’s recent State of Menopause survey, 73% of menopausal women aren’t treating their symptoms. Symptom relief may help to improve your overall wellbeing, supporting better sleep, a calmer mood, and even easier days at work.
Consider managing menopause through a multipronged approach that includes lifestyle changes such as exercising more, reducing stress, and using supplements, if appropriate.
You can also talk to your healthcare provider about prescription medical support, such as low dose anti-depressants or hormone replacement therapy8 to better help manage your symptoms.
Talk About It Some More
The importance of communicating about menopause extends beyond the workplace. Talk to other women about what you’re going through, physically, professionally, and emotionally. Create a support group, either online or in person, where you can exchange ideas that you can all bring to your respective workplaces.
Talk to men about what you’re going through, too. Demystify menopause to anyone who will listen. It’s the best way to make yourself heard, and to advocate for yourself and others.
Menopause is more than just an inconvenience. It’s a potential sideliner of highly effective, experienced women who have much to give to their employers, clients, and companies. But it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s time to take the taboo out of this very natural time of life.