More than one million women in the U.S. experience menopause each year. But despite the universality of menopause for all women, there is shockingly little discussion of and support for this phase of life, especially in the workplace. Fortunately, recent media coverage of menopause is getting the conversation started. In this week’s blog, we explore how workplaces can ensure women’s well-being needs are met during this critical time.
When it comes to women’s well-being in the workplace, employer and health plan benefits and programs have traditionally focused on the childbearing years—for example, maternity leave, fertility assistance, child care, and even breast milk shipping services. But there is little support for another critical phase of a woman’s life—the years leading up to menopause, called perimenopause, and the post-menopausal years.1
Every woman will experience menopause, which marks the end of a woman’s menstrual cycle—usually between the ages of 45 and 55. These years preceding a woman’s last period are often accompanied by uncomfortable symptoms including hot flashes, brain fog, joint pain, insomnia, weight gain, anxiety and more, which can last for six to 10 years.
While not every woman will experience symptoms that profoundly affect her quality of life, the vast majority will. Until recently, women had few options for help. Fortunately, due to the recent debunking of a 2002 Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) study that prevented a generation of women from using hormone replacement therapy (HRT) to treat symptoms, that is changing. Recent extensive coverage of menopause is helping to spread the word about HRT’s safety and how it and other treatments can help.2
Why menopause support is a workplace issue.
Menopause has always been a difficult personal issue, but we are just starting to learn more about the economic and career advancement impacts that menopausal symptoms can have in the workplace.
A recent Mayo Clinic study found that the potential direct and indirect costs of absenteeism, lost work productivity, increased health care costs, and lost opportunities for career advancement are staggering. Additionally, according to the study, menopause costs American women an estimated $1.8 billion in lost working time per year.3
Moreover, as this Harvard Business Review article notes, menopause often takes place at a time when women are most likely to move into top leadership positions and “have the skills and experience to contribute in meaningful ways to the organization.”
Struggling with menopausal symptoms may thus be contributing to the lack of female leadership at the top as women fail to seek promotions, reduce work hours, or retire early. Many are even opting out of the workforce altogether. A study in the UK found that close to a million menopausal women have left their jobs due to menopausal symptoms.4
For these reasons, it’s in every employer’s best interest to support women during these critical years—not only because it’s the right thing to do from a health and well-being standpoint, but also because it’s a business issue that has the potential to affect women’s engagement, productivity and retention.
What employers can do to support women’s well-being during menopause.
Experts agree that the number one thing we can do to reduce the stigma of menopause is to start talking about it more. Deborah Garlick, founder of Henpicked, a UK training firm that has provided “menopause-friendly” certifications to organizations like HSBC UK and Unilever UK, suggests posting more information on company websites and training employees and managers, regardless of gender. Also, just as we have urged leaders to more openly discuss mental health, female leaders can talk about their own challenges with menopause to help reduce the stigma for other women in the organization.
Create a menopause champion network.
Much as we have health coaches and wellness champions, organizations can appoint “menopause champions”5 in the workplace. These are women who are willing to talk to other employees about menopause and help them find support. This approach has been particularly successful in the UK, where the issue of menopause in the workplace has gained more traction than in the U.S., and has helped companies foster more inclusive environments for menopausal women.
Because menopause symptoms can contribute to missed work days, a flexible work policy that allows women to work from home some or all of the time is important. You can also consider adjustments to leave policies to allow for menopause-related paid leave or additional sick days.
Promote existing benefits.
Employers can tap into benefits that the company already offers to support women going through menopause. For example, most Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) offer mental health services, including treatment for common symptoms like depression and anxiety. Also be sure to promote any stress reduction, resilience-building, exercise and nutrition, and mindfulness/meditation programs you may offer. You might also explore adding standalone health programs targeted to menopausal women.
Offer training for managers and supervisors.
Provide tip sheets for having conversations that are informed and thoughtful, or a quick training course about menopause and the effects it can have on a woman’s health. Be sure to frame it as a business issue that needs attention, just like stress and burnout. Encourage managers to be receptive to any necessary workplace accommodations. It’s also important for managers to know that menopause may not be something all women want to talk about.
Consider the work environment.
Given that vasomotor symptoms, otherwise known as “hot flashes,” are common during menopause, consider giving access to a cooling room where the temperature is more easily controlled, provide fans, or allow breaks to step outside for fresh air.
We’ve come so far in the last several years when it comes to discussing mental health at work. With more than 15 million women ages 45 to 60 in the workplace, according to U.S. Census statistics, let’s hope that the conversations about menopause will follow the same path so we can reduce the stigma and provide women with the support they need to stay healthy, productive and engaged during this time in their lives.