Written by guest contributor Jodi Rosenthal
Picture this: You are standing in front of a room of clients, ready to take them through an incredibly important proposal that you have been working on for weeks. Your boss is in the room. While you do have a few butterflies, you are prepared, confident, and ready to knock this out of the park. You begin, but 15 minutes into your presentation, something doesn’t feel right….
You feel like a fog has settled on your mind and you start struggling to find the right words. You lose your train of thought a couple of times and miss a couple of crucial talking points. Then, you start to get hot. And this is not a “nervous” heat or a result of the number of bodies in the room. This is a whole new level of heat, rising up through your body and manifesting in sweat pouring down your face, creeping down your neck, and pooling in your clothes. Your heart is pumping fast. You can feel everyone’s eyes on you, and despite the desire to flee the room for some air, you stoically power through to the end of the presentation.
The clients leave and you finally make your way to the bathroom; hot, stressed and anxious. Your confidence has taken a hit and you start catastrophising about possible repercussions for what has transpired. The worst part is that you know exactly what is happening to you but you must deal with it alone. Why? Because no one talks about menopause at work.
The emotional impact of menopause at work
This is what we suspected prior to conducting our research at Circle In - that menopause remains a taboo subject in workplaces. But suffice to say the results from our recent survey of people’s experiences of and attitudes towards menopause in the workplace were more shocking than we ever could have anticipated. While each individual’s physical experience of menopause may differ (including the type and longevity of the physical effects) our research showed that the impacts on working life were eerily similar - and extremely distressing.
I was unable to hold a conversation due to brain fog. The words just wouldn't come.
For starters, 83% of respondents who had experienced menopause said their work was negatively affected. Almost half of the respondents (48%) cited a drop in confidence as a result and almost as many (46%) said that the stress of having to hide their experience had the greatest impact. Another piece of information that is not widely known, is that individuals going through menopause may also have difficulty sleeping, which can lead to daytime fatigue and difficulty concentrating. 62% of respondents said that the stress of juggling work with the effect of bodily changes was the most challenging aspect of work during menopause.
There is a lot written about “managing the juggle" as a working parent, but managing the competing demands of work and life is a challenge during the menopausal transition, too. Our research found that the emotional response caused the greatest distress for respondents, often compounded by a sense of going through it alone, because, as one respondent put it: “Women’s problems aren’t really spoken about”.
At varying times during my cycle, the impact of pain and other symptoms meant I needed time off from work, and didn't reveal the reason for my 'illness'.
I was unbelievably emotional and found it hard to concentrate. I would often burst into tears over nothing and struggled to cope with things I would usually handle with ease. I actually thought I was losing my mind.
Starting the conversation
Stressed. Emotional. Fatigued. Difficulty concentrating. We could easily be talking about some of the physical impacts of pregnancy! However, the difference in awareness and support for these two stages of life in the workplace could not be more different - and we wanted to know why. What became immediately clear through the results of the research was that most people who hadn’t experienced menopause didn’t know much about it or how to support someone going through it. In fact, only 4% of people that knew someone going through menopause rated their knowledge level as ‘high’. Nearly all said their knowledge level was either ‘medium’ (46% ) or ‘low’ (47% ). So not surprisingly, the first part of the answer to “why?” was related to a lack of awareness and education.
They are much younger and don't understand or want to know. Menopause is seen as a failing and an excuse for age discrimination.
This was further reinforced when we delved deeper into the relationship between menopause in the workplace and managerial support. There was no doubt that those going through menopause were eager to get support from their managers. Well over half of all the people we surveyed thought manager support was ‘important’ or ‘very important’, and 53% of those who had an experience of menopause said that their manager's awareness would have been a great support to them during this transition. This was followed closely (49%) by openness to comfortably talk about menopause in the workplace.
I was concerned about my manager thinking negatively about my performance.
Unfortunately, the reality was that the majority of respondents (70%) who had experienced menopause were not comfortable talking to their manager about their challenges or needs. Digging deeper, the reasons for this were predominantly down to gender, with 22% explicitly saying they would not feel comfortable sharing their challenges with their manager because they were male - or in some cases because the workplace was male-dominated. Reading the responses, there was an overwhelming perception that male bosses or employers would not be approachable, understanding, or would penalize the employee for appearing 'weak'. There were also considerable mentions of age being a barrier to having open discussions.
I was concerned about perceptions of underperformance and age.
No one talks about menopause. I do. I want other women to know what is going to occur. But talking menopause to a man 15 years younger than you is not easy.
Conversely, many respondents talked about the ease with which they could talk to colleagues or managers who had personal experience of menopause. Some examples of support that were cited included being able to take personal leave with no questions asked, supportive and understanding conversations, information sharing on strategies, kind responses when sleep-deprived, and, importantly, normalizing discussion and information sharing around all women’s issues.
My employer couldn’t care less. In fact, I felt I had to keep it secret as menopausal women are regarded as slightly dumb and can’t be trusted to work effectively.
Impact on workforce participation
Given the extent of the physical and emotional impacts we have covered above, it should come as no surprise that there are huge risks to workforce participation from women experiencing menopause. Almost half of our respondents said that they had considered retiring or taking time off work when their menopausal symptoms were severe, but only 28% of those went through with it. Of those who didn’t go through with it, almost half (42%) cited financial reasons. That’s one in eight women experiencing menopause who stepped out of the workforce due to their symptoms, and another two in eight who would have done so if they could afford to.
I couldn't afford to take time off work, so I just endured.
With the gender pay gap continuing to widen (yet another unwelcome impact of the pandemic) and women still taking on most of the (unpaid) caregiving responsibilities, this is another challenge when it comes to retaining women in the workforce. And let’s not forget, women experience the onset of menopause, on average, at around 50 years of age which means they are likely to be individuals in senior and/or public-facing jobs. With decades of work experience under their belt, they are often highly valued and significant contributors to the workforce as well as to the hard-won percentage of female leaders.
I am in the early stages of a new career path, and the work is very fulfilling for me. At times, however, I wasn't sure if I could continue due to the pain and other symptoms, and really thought it would be hard to go on.
Needless to say, the question we had posed at the outset of our research had well and truly been answered. We found that there was a culture of ignorance and isolation around menopause in the workplace, and a glaring lack of support for employees and their managers. There was a notable business impact, and with (at best) inconsistent organisational and managerial support for those experiencing menopause, a range of negative impacts felt by the impacted respondents.
Guidelines for employers
So now what?! Facts and stats are essential but here at Circle In, we know from experience that true change only happens when policy becomes practice. To facilitate this, we provided – with the aid of the Victorian Women’s Trust and their partnership with the Chalice Foundation – suggested steps for employers to inspire immediate action and help break down the taboo of menopause in the workplace.
Our workplace is very focused on general wellbeing so there is leave available if you are unwell and there are things to support wellbeing which would help – but nothing specific to menopause.
These guidelines are as follows:
1. Develop a framework for flexibility
Every person experiences menopause differently, and your employee has the best insight into their experience and also knows their role the best. Your role is to provide a framework of flexibility within which they can make the adjustments they need.
The Victorian Women’s Trust has developed a menstrual and menopause workplace policy template for use by employers. The template is freely available and ready to be integrated into your workplace. It is designed to be flexible for adaptation to your particular workplace and the needs of your employee.
2. Raise awareness in your workplace
Menopause is rarely talked about, either in the workforce or in the media. As a result, individuals transitioning through menopause need support, and this is an opportunity for workplaces to raise awareness. Some suggestions for getting started and normalizing the conversation include:
Hold an event and invite women to connect
Share real-life stories to drive cultural change
Find a senior leader to be a support champion.
3. Equip and inform your managers and leaders
The role of a manager is to normalise the subject of menopause and encourage transparency in staff, therefore equipping, upskilling, and supporting managers is absolutely essential. Ways to do this include:
Develop a short manager conversation guide
Implement manager training
Invite managers to join employee groups.
4.Build a community
We know that most people experiencing menopause would like to receive information or advice from their employer about available support, or access to a support network at work. If any employee support services exist, consider directing your employee to these or if there is nothing available, set up:
A social channel
A Menopause Employee Resource Group.
5.Make adjustments to the physical working environment
The nature of office work can make it particularly difficult for individuals experiencing menopause to physically work there. This means practical and easy changes to the office environment can often improve working conditions dramatically. Some of the ways employers can improve the physical environment include:
Air conditioning and temperature control
Access to additional cooling such as desk fans
Access to cool drinking water
Provision of a quiet or restful area
Uniforms (where relevant) made from breathable materials.
You can find the full version of these guidelines in our report: Driving the change: Menopause and the workplace. And for more resources on how you can support your employees, visit Circle In, drop us an email at hello@circleincom or get in touch with us here.
At Circle In, we help organisations show they care, and in conducting this research, we uncovered a huge cohort of the working population that deserves more of that care. From the fundamentals of making a working day physically bearable to enabling a culture that accommodates honest conversations, there is still work to be done.
So what can you do today to provide meaningful support? How can your organisation become a better place to work during menopause? We hope that you will use this guide to create a more open, supportive workplace culture, and play your part in driving this important, overdue, and much-needed change.
Source: Circle In, Driving the change: Menopause and the workplace, March 2021
About the author:
Jodi Rosenthal lives by a quote from another short but feisty woman, US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg: “Fight for the things you care about – but do it in a way that will lead others to join you”. A champion of equality and impromptu dance-offs, Jodi’s career took shape in the media industry where she held sales, product and leadership roles at publishers including Network TEN, News Corp and oOh! Media. She is currently General Manager, Operations at Circle In, an employee benefits platform catering for every stage of parenthood and caregiving; helping leading companies retain and attract talent and build their employer brand.