I kept having fevers. I couldn’t sleep. I was feeling totally unfocused. I thought it was just an extension of my restless tendencies, but after days of unrelenting symptoms, I decided I should see a doctor.
I left the office with my diagnosis in hand, feeling astounded, confused, and angry. I thought I was too young for menopause—and felt baffled that millions of women work every day feeling like this.
Two professional, well-educated colleagues of mine warned me not to write about this issue. They said I'd end up disclosing my age and hurting my hiring prospects, or else reinforce a stereotype that women are weepy and unreliable.
But I couldn't leave it alone. I have daily hot flashes, which means instead of using my emotional intelligence to listen to the person in front of me, all I can think about is finding the closest air conditioner. If these symptoms are considered light, how are millions of other women dealing with worse? And what about the leaders who have to manage others with these symptoms?
- Most women officially reach menopause between the ages of 45 and 55, and symptoms can last between two and 10 years. It’s possible for symptoms to start as early as 35 years of age, before officially reaching menopause.
- The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists reports that an estimated 6,000 U.S. women reach menopause every day (over 2 million per year).
- An average of 27 million women between the ages of 45 and 64, or 20% of the American workforce, experience menopause each year.
- By 2018, nearly 31 million women in the menopausal age range will be employed.
- 80% of those 31 million employed women will experience menopausal symptoms.
In addition to hot flashes and insomnia, women also experience headaches, loss of energy, anxiety attacks, brain fog, aches and pains, and dry skin and eyes. This translates to 20% of the workforce potentially being at work without enough sleep, sweating to death at their desks with intermittent headaches, no energy, and an achy body. I think that fact is worthy of addressing.
Yet menopause remains a taboo topic in many workplaces. Women don’t want to admit they are going through it. Men don’t want to talk about "women’s health issues." It’s discussed so little that most people are unaware of the workplace impact until they know someone going through menopause, or are experiencing it themselves.
Why is no one talking about an important topic that affects 27 million people at work every day? We can talk about breast cancer, pregnancy, obesity, and more, yet have been silenced on this topic.
In fact, that’s exactly how women feel about discussing menopause in the workplace: silenced. If 20% of women surveyed by the British Occupational Health Research Foundation believe that menopause has had negative impact on their managers and colleagues’ perceptions of their competence, then that silence has some serious repercussions.
Yet researchers at the University of Nottingham found that many women didn’t want to disclose this issue to their manager, particularly if the manager was younger than them, male, or both.
Of the women who had taken time off work due to menopausal symptoms, only half of them disclosed the real reason for their absence. Some women even considered working part-time but feared this would negatively impact their career. What's more, over half of the women in the study said they were unable to negotiate flexible work arrangements when dealing with symptoms.
One woman explained how that impacted her:
It certainly affects my confidence from the point of view of speaking at meetings because I am not as fluent . . . that concerns me. I don’t want to, you know, suddenly not have the word that I need, so I am perhaps sort of withdrawing a little bit.
It's no surprise that the impact of menopause in the workplace isn't much discussed. Most organizational systems were built by and for men, rarely with women in mind, let alone women with menopausal symptoms. So there's an inherent sexism and bias built into organizations that disadvantage part of the workforce throughout all phases of their careers.
If the tech world thinks 30 is old, no wonder no one wants to mention menopausal symptoms. In this case, using a hot flash as a reason for forgetting something is tantamount to workplace suicide. For those who are brave enough to mention it, you risk running up against unflattering gender stereotypes, or worse. So it’s a no-win situation.
And even if you have a leader who's educated about menopause, she or he may end up fighting misinformation and lack the support it takes to find a solution. So what’s a leader supposed to do?
Here are some ideas for creating a menopause-friendly workplace, which can benefit both the 20% of the workforce that experiences menopause as well as the organizations that employ them.
This is a no-brainer that often goes overlooked. While managers are trained in subjects like conflict management and finances, they’re not usually trained in dealing with menopause. They should know the symptoms and challenges women face during menopause so they can approach the situation knowledgeably and with compassion.
For example, managers might let an employee take control of the thermostat instead of just dismissing their employee as fussy for mentioning the temperature all the time. They may proactively ventilate the office and make sure cold water is available. Also, they’d then be able to recognize behavior related to menopause symptoms that might otherwise hint at lack of engagement.
Appoint a person—or several—to act as advocates for women in the workplace going through menopause. This person would know about all of the special absence allowances, related wellness programs, and flex policies. They could also speak to leadership or management on behalf of women if needed or requested. This advocate could come from any department at any level; it would only depend on their personality fit and interest in the role.
Some organizations have wellness support programs for their employees, which include a contact number for a resource of coaches, dieticians, and other advisers. Employees can call this hotline for support in health-related manners such as losing weight, quitting smoking, or getting more physically fit.
By adding menopausal support to your wellness program, women experiencing menopausal symptoms can better learn how to manage them from a health perspective, and cope with work when they aren't feeling 100%. Information on all flexible work and sick-day policies would also be available with this service.
Many women are looking to alternative therapies for managing menopausal symptoms, including acupuncture, Chinese medicine, bio-identical hormone replacement, and other practices used by integrative health practitioners. Though women often see significant improvements, paying out of pocket for them can be cost prohibitive. Including these alternatives as part of a benefits package would enable women to seek treatments that they're comfortable with and help them feel better.
When an organization hosts a "wellness week," it brings in yoga instructors, massage therapists, nutritionists, chefs specializing in healthy meals, and more. Why not add a component that deals with menopause? Some possibilities are a yoga instructor who can offer poses and breathing exercises, particularly for women in this group, a dietician to recommend the best foods for coping with symptoms, or even a funny speaker to "break the ice" on the topic while educating the team.
Add sick-day policies that cater to menopause-related sickness or absence. Women should experience no disadvantage if they need time off during this time.
If a woman is struggling to sleep, getting to work at 8 or 9 a.m. becomes more of a challenge. Allow flexibility for women experiencing menopausal symptoms when it comes to work scheduling. Also, if a woman feels unwell at work and needs to go home for a while and return later, a flexible schedule will enable her to get what she needs to get done when she’s feeling well. Plus, letting women work from home when they need to can also be helpful so they can manage their symptoms more comfortably without losing productivity.
There, it’s done. I wrote about menopause. Will I now be discriminated against? I hope not. What I do hope is that leaders will take a serious look at the reality that women face in the workplace when experiencing menopausal symptoms, and think hard about how they can mitigate it.
Leaders have a real opportunity to make a positive impact on how we deal with women’s health in the U.S. By implementing these tips, this no-win situation can become a win-win.
This article is adapted from a story that originally appeared on AnneLoehr.com. It is reprinted with permission.