Menopause is a Business Issue and Employers Can Help

5 May 2024

As we “celebrated” Workers Day on 1 May, I reflected on my own professional journey and where I am now. No doubt that embracing democracy and implementing legislation to advance the rights of marginalised groups has had benefits for me as a Black woman. However, in this phase of my life I realise that workplaces (and society)  still have a way to go to recognise and provide meaningful support for the different life phases of women (and girls).

Society appears to have a high tolerance for women’s suffering leading to a lack of meanigful response to many of the health and wellbeing issues we face from childhood to old age. Now as I am in the menopause phase of my life I am actually so happy that I do not work for an employer because menopause has literally shown me flames and has had a significant impact on my productivity.

Let’s Talk Menopause

Menopause, the natural transition marking the end of a woman's reproductive years, often gets shrouded in secrecy and misunderstanding. Yet, it's a reality for roughly half the population, impacting women at the peak of their careers. While experiences vary, menopause can bring a wave of physical and emotional symptoms, potentially affecting a woman's productivity and overall well-being at work.Amen.

Menopause is a natural phase in a woman's life but the invisibility of the issue in policy and society has led to many women suffering serious set backs and being too scared to raise it for fear of retribution. Women experiencing menopause are a powerhouse of experience and dedication but menopause can seriously impact their productivity which sometimes seems inexplicable to employers.

Menopause can bring a range of symptoms, including hot flashes, night sweats, mood swings, and fatigue. These symptoms can affect women's ability to concentrate, memory, and overall performance. A study by the British Menopause Society found that 77% of women reported that menopause symptoms affected their work, with 25% considering leaving their job due to symptoms.

Menopause, while a natural transition, can bring a wave of changes that affect a woman's physical and mental well-being. These are some of the real consequences of menopause and each woman’.s experience is differentce:

  • Weight Gain: Estrogen, a key hormone, helps regulate metabolism and fat storage. During menopause, declining estrogen levels can lead to an increase in body fat, particularly around the abdomen. I have experienced this and the effect of it is that it affects your energy and your self-confidence.
  • Anxiety and Mental Wellbeing: The hormonal shifts during menopause can trigger emotional changes, including anxiety, irritability, and even depression. Some women may experience mood swings similar to those experienced during PMS. I have unexpectedly experienced severe anxiety around flying which has had a debilitating impact on my work. Recently I asked a client to move a workshop to my location but this isus not sustainable, and I have had to explore many avenues to find respite. Thankfully my client was understanding but an employer is not likely to be.
  • Sleep: Hot flashes and night sweats, common menopause symptoms, can disrupt sleep patterns. This lack of quality sleep can further exacerbate anxiety, mood swings, and difficulty concentrating. Most women I know are struggling to get good sleep, the kind of sleep o needed to rest the brain and rejuvenate the body. Poor sleep over time impacts the body’s ability to recover, and leads to low energy and productivity, as well as the inability to focus for long periods of time.
  • Brain Fog: Many women report experiencing "brain fog" during menopause. This can manifest as difficulty concentrating, forgetfulness, and trouble finding the right words. While the exact cause is unclear, hormonal changes and sleep disruption are likely factors. We often laugh at brain fog but I have seen women feeling ashamed because of it. It can literally affect your memory at any moment, and this could have an impact in spaces with clients and colleagues - leading to judgements about “getting old” but very little empathy for understanding how this brain fog can be a major blow to self-esteem.
  • Energy Levels: The combined effects of sleep disruption, hot flashes, and emotional changes can lead to a significant decrease in energy levels. This can make it challenging to maintain focus and complete tasks throughout the day. I know this and I also know that I cannot work for eight hours straight as most employers would expect. My energy levels vary and I i am often to work no more than four hours a day. Having the flexibility to do this has been a game changer, because I can also show understanding to my team and colleagues who are experiencing the same.
  • Mood: Estrogen also plays a role in regulating mood. Fluctuating estrogen levels can lead to mood swings, low mood, and even depression. It is understandable that women can suffer severe depression in many pause due to the myriad of symptoms they experience and the lack of understanding and support. It would not be surprising that a woman experiencing menopause would eventually be booked off bymy her medical practitioner for depression because she has been unable to be vocal about all the other symptoms that have been making her productive life difficult. 

Menopause is a Public Health Issue

The impact of menopause isn't just personal. A study by the Mayo Clinic revealed a staggering $26.6 billion annual loss to the US economy due to menopause-related issues. Countries like the United Kingdom (UK)  face similar concerns and have taken significant action to support women affected by menopause in the workplace.

In its Womens Health Strategy, the UK  government notes that “not enough focus is placed on women-specific issues like miscarriage or menopause, and women are under-represented when it comes to important clinical trials. This has meant that not enough is known about conditions that only affect women, or about how conditions that affect both men and women impact them in different ways.” The strategy was developed through consultation with women across the UK and seeks to move beyond typical heath care actions to improving the way in which the health and care system listens to women’s voices, and boost health outcomes for women and girls. Menopause was the third most selected topic that respondents picked for inclusion in the Women’s Health Strategy, with 48% of respondents selecting this.“It takes a life course approach, focused on understanding the changing health and care needs of women and girls across their lives, from adolescents and young adults to later life.” 

The UK government has also appointed a (voluntary) Menopause Employment Champion who has a vision to “ advocate for women in the workplace who don’t have the autonomy, confidence, or the platform to be able to get the support they need through education or from support within the workplace.” She also seeks to provide best practice guidance and education across five sectors that will ensure that all women in the workplace regardless of the size and budget of their employer can access resource. Her four point plan to bring better response to menopause in employment includes:

  • Sharing of employer best practice (within sectors) on a portal that is accessible to all employers whether large or small, free of charge. 
  • A national sector-specific allyship programme which ensures no one is isolated and everyone has someone available to talk to. 
  • Menopause-friendly employers who will support, share, and advocate across their sector – retaining and attracting talent to the sector; and 
  • A communications plan to improve the working lives of women in their sector, achieved by amplification through strategic partnerships.

I am sharing this as an example of what is possible if we understand the massive impact of menopause on women’s lives, employers and the economy. We already have institutions in South Africa that exist to address issues affecting women’s access to health and employment rights, yet these same institutions are failing to bring to light the real impact of matters like menopause -  buying into the societal norms of ignoring women’s concerns, pain and suffering - and the ultimate impact on their health and economic survival.

How Can Employers Help?

Here's how employers can create a more inclusive environment for women experiencing menopause:

  • Open the space for dialogue and normalise conversations about menopause for women and men so that everyone may understand the real life implications in the workplace.
  • Organise workshops or invite healthcare professionals to address common symptoms and treatment  options. Menopause has a mental and physical health impact and it is important to understand this and how to address it in the workplace.
  • Train managers and human resources to be able to understand menopause and provide the requisite support.
  • Offer flexible work arrangements like remote work or adjusted schedules to accommodate symptoms and impacts  that might affect women’s health and productivity.
  • Provide resources and information on managing menopause. This could include access to employee assistance programs or places to access more information and support for those who need it.
  • Include it in workplace policies and be clear about the support that is available.
  • Understand that menopause can feel like “shame” for women making it difficult for them to be open about it; so make this part of policy and practice on diversity and inclusion.

The most important thing any employer can do is not make this a “woman’s issue” for women to fix. Also, engage women in the workplace to understand how they are affected by menopause and how the employer can support them meaningfully.

Ultimately, we do need better public health policy and guidance on menopause so that there is a societal understanding and response to it. For now, I guess it will remain a dream and women are on their own. Thankfully, menopause is becoming more visible internationally; more women are talking about it and creating spaces to support each other. As usual we are our own saviours.

 

Shireen Motara is an African Feminist, Certified Women’s Coach and CEO of Tara Transform and The Next Chapter.

 

 

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