Labor shortages are among the biggest issues facing businesses right now. In the UK, there are 1.3 million job vacancies; this rises to 10 million in the US. At the same time, approximately 1.3 million women become menopausal every year in the US alone.
With the average menopause age between 45 and 55, this transformative life stage often intersects with the most critical and economically productive years in a woman’s career. Yet a glaring lack of menopause-related support provided by employers means highly skilled and experienced women are being pushed out of work.
In the US, 20% of the workforce are affected by menopause symptoms and women are returning to work at a much slower rate, post COVID-19. Mounting childcare costs, caring for family and burnout are also some of the other common reasons why women are not returning.
While menopause should be considered an important topic all year round, World Menopause Day offers a moment to reflect on the challenges that menopause poses for women in the workplace and what HR teams can do to support this natural life stage for their female colleagues.
Obstacles faced by working women
A natural part of female ageing, the menopause marks 12 months since a woman’s last period and the end of their reproductive years. The years leading to that point are known as perimenopause or the menopausal transition, when a woman’s ovaries start to produce fewer hormones and changes in the menstrual cycle are noticeable.
While a small portion of women pass through this time with relative ease, the majority will experience symptoms of some kind – many of which are difficult to manage alongside a full or part-time job and can potentially cause embarrassment in a working environment.
For example, 80% of women experience hot flashes while others might have trouble sleeping, poor concentration and memory, or low confidence. One in four women will experience debilitating symptoms that can last up to 15 years.
The menopause can also have a huge effect on mental health; a US study showed that women are two to four times more likely to experience a major depressive episode when they are perimenopausal or early post-menopausal than at other times in their lives.
The lack of workplace support, company guidelines and appropriate access to menopausal care is only adding to the existing mental health crisis.
While it’s encouraging to see employers are increasingly catering to mental health needs, many care programs don’t take the specific characteristics of the menopause into account.
Without company-wide awareness and education on the menopause, women are often left having to explain their symptoms and care needs to male managers who often, through no fault of their own, are not adequately equipped to provide support.
Menopause policies help provide a framework for dealing with these circumstances, yet there is still some way to go in terms of implementation and awareness.
Lack of employer support
It is not just personal career ambitions that are negatively impacted. The glaring absence of employer support is hampering business performance and economic growth.
Globally, menopausal productivity losses have exceeded $150 billion a year and this will likely increase with an ageing workforce. Women in the menopausal age group currently account for 11% of the workforce in the seven most-industrialized nations.
As countries across the globe face the possibility of an economic recession, we cannot afford to needlessly lose a significant proportion of the female workforce particularly when they are at the peak of their experience.
Implementing sustainable solutions
The statistics speak loud and clear: this problem is systemic, bound up in the social inequality we see expressed in the gender pay gap, accessibility and lack of senior female leaders. But this issue is not impossible to overcome. So, what can we do about it?
Firstly, employers need to offer women flexible and sustainable career options. This boosts morale and makes it easier for women to manage their symptoms, often from the comfort of their own home.
On a practical level, for example, the Chartered Institute of Personal Development (CIPD) in the UK recommends offering women a later start time if their sleeping pattern is disturbed, and ensuring women have access to regular comfort breaks. Improving ventilation or providing fans can also help women manage their hot flashes.
Secondly, workplaces need more internal education on menopause to understand and support employees. Internal workshops offered to all employees will help raise awareness of the symptoms and normalize conversations around the topic, ensuring more people are comfortable discussing menopause within peer groups.
Fostering an inclusive culture is key to ensuring women feel able to ask for support. Employers should provide managers with the right training so they can comfortably work with women in their team on a one-to-one basis to understand individual circumstances and find the right support solution for each person.
Last but not least, organizations should take an active role in empowering and supporting women. Managers and leaders can easily increase their understanding of menopause and have various tools at their disposal to practically help with this, whether it’s offering women a menopause support package, or, providing them with access to online resources and digital healthcare services.
The latter can play a key role in improving menopausal care, and overcoming barriers to access for appointments to healthcare professionals.
Evidently, more needs to be done when it comes to supporting working women experiencing menopause. Providing flexible working options, increasing internal education and awareness and empowering women with access to information are all practical solutions employers can take.
Improving menopausal care must be a priority if organizations are to increase women in senior leadership positions, stem the flow of talented women leaving the workforce, and continue to close the gender pay gap.