Talking About Menopause in the Workplace
Oh, we know. Speaking the word (and its precursor, perimenopause) aloud can clear a room. While everyone knows it’s something we have to deal with, no one wants to actually talk about it—especially not in the workplace, and certainly not in mixed company. But in this era of bringing our whole selves to work (whether that’s in the physical presence of our coworkers or from our home workspaces), it’s high time we introduced the topic.
Menopause, meet the workplace. Workplace, say hello to menopause.
Employers are okay discussing and making accommodations for pregnancy and breastfeeding, but menopause seems somehow different, a workplace taboo best swept under the proverbial carpet. As a result, they’re missing opportunities to support us.
What is menopause?
For the uninitiated, menopause isn’t just a time when we stop having periods. A whole host of symptoms related to menopause can affect us in our 40s, 50s, and into our 60s. These include hot flashes, cognitive changes, sleep issues, depression, anxiety, stress and burnout, to name just a few. (Menopause can occur earlier, too, due to certain health conditions, surgery, or chemotherapy.)
My own experience with menopause just happened to coincide with a worldwide pandemic. With work travel effectively shut down, I could suffer symptoms over video meetings, where luckily my co-workers were unlikely to notice my pounding heart and shirt-soaking hot flashes. Experiencing the indignities alone in my home office, and being able to shut off my video camera to run outside, is a luxury many of my friends aren’t afforded.
When menopause arrives, we may be at an age where we may have more time to devote to work or other interests now that children may be off to college or grown and gone. We might also have fewer responsibilities outside of work, so more time to dedicate to work, education, certification, or other interests. Conversely, menopause can happen when we have even more demands—like caring for older or ill parents or family members—on top of other family stressors. Menopause can be a cruel twist in a life that might just be hitting its stride or yet another challenge on top of an overfull plate.
If you’re in it, you know. You’ve probably raced into a meeting and gotten situated at the table, only to be overtaken by the internal fire that signifies an oncoming hot flash—and had to race for the door. Your co-workers might be confused by your constant fanning or your need for dressing in umpteen layers and peeling them off at seemingly random times. You might have snapped at someone for little reason or pushed past someone in the hallway in a rush for fresh air.
Worse still is the brain fog. Routine tasks might get hazy, or you may have forgotten where you were in the middle of a meeting or presentation, or dropped the ball on your part of a team project. These slips can be brutal to your ego, but if you’re supported in the workplace, they don’t have to derail your career.
How employers can support women going through menopause
Menopause does affect the workforce—recent studies show 20% of the current workforce is experiencing it—so employers should acknowledge it. Here’s how they can begin:
First and foremost, actively work to demystify and destigmatize this very normal life phase.
Encourage open and honest discussion about menopause and its side effects. Acknowledging that symptoms can be both emotionally and physically challenging can go a long way.
Build policies that help us feel supported in all phases of our work life, and facilitate conversations that help co-workers and managers understand when support and understanding is needed.
Create a safe space for us to express our needs to managers and supervisors, such as flexible hours if sleep is being interrupted, access to fresh air during the workday, proximity to bathrooms, or breaks in meetings. Our having to say “I’m having a hot flash and need to step away” shouldn’t be met with ridicule, shame, or personal questions.
Make room for menopause in workplace health programs. Is there a place to get information on menopause for those experiencing it or those wishing to provide support? Does the employee assistance program (EAP) offer guidance? Do health and wellness talks include information about menopause?
Educate managers on menopause, symptoms, accommodations, and appropriate support, and teach them what they can do to keep their employees experiencing menopause symptoms engaged, productive, challenged, and feeling valued.
If those of us experiencing menopause aren’t acknowledged and supported by workplace policies and initiatives, we’ll feel alienated, invisible, less valued, and may bow out of the workforce well before we’re ready, taking with us valuable wisdom and experience. Support from company leaders, openness and efforts to destigmatize menopause in the workplace, and employer policies and programs that support our health at all ages benefit everyone.