Menopause: it’s time to talk about the taboo
emPOWERED Network

Menopause: it’s time to talk about the taboo

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Women experiencing menopause are one of the fastest growing demographics in the workplace, yet the silence on the issue is deafening

According to a survey by Intuit QuickBook of 3000 women over 20 per cent wanted to leave their jobs due to menopausal symptoms. Worryingly, over 75 per cent said it could impact on their plans to progress to a more senior level.

Yet peri-menopausal symptoms (which women experience in the run up to the actual menopause) can last 15 years. Post menopause (a year after the final period) can last seven years, meaning the entire process can affect a women’s working life by over two decades.

Perimenopause typically begins in a woman’s early 40s, but it can happen as early as mid-30s, coinciding with what is often one of the most challenging decades of a woman’s life. By the fourth decade many women are approaching the peak of their career and juggling caring responsibilities – whether that be children, parents, or both.

The symptoms that can happen during the perimenopause tend to be very subtle to start with but can affect both psychological wellbeing and physical wellbeing as ovarian function begins to decline and hormonal fluctuations come to the surface.

The physical symptoms can have a very real impact on a woman’s ability to do her job.

Dr Mandy Leonhard who is a General Practitioner and is certificated in Menopause Care (BMS) from the Hormone Equilibrium says. “The more common vasomotor symptoms which are night sweats and hot flushes are worsened by stress.

"So, if you're stressed, you're more likely to get a hot flush – not ideal if you are worrying about delivering a presentation to a room full of colleagues. They're very debilitating.

“Memory, cognitive function and even muscle pain are some other symptoms, there are 34 different potential symptoms that women might experience.”

Disrupted sleep is another common symptoms that can impact on work performance and personal relationships.

While we sleep our brain carries out its housekeeping - processing memories and information. Women often find as they approach perimenopause they start to wake through the night, they struggle to get back to sleep and so when the alarm goes off, they have little energy. As a result, they might experience brain fog or memory issues.

Dr Leonhard explains that anxiety is another common symptom, regularly experienced by women with no previous history of anxiety.

She says, “Anxiety is a very debilitating symptom that can be completely out of character, but women often describe losing confidence in normal day to day tasks.

"Decision making can be affected, they can become insecure for no reason, and this really affects their general emotional resilience.

“They may become irritable and less patient. Not something they can afford to do in the workplace.

"So, women frequently pull themselves together, put their professional mask on and go through their eight to 10 hour working day trying to act 'normal'. At the end of which they are completely exhausted, they may become impatient or easily frustrated with their family or partner when they return home which then has a negative knock on effect on their personal relationships."

Why is it still taboo?

Women’s bodily functions are steeped in taboo. Thankfully jokes around the water cooler about hot flushes and ‘time of the month’ are far less than what women might have experienced a decade ago in the workplace, but there still seems to be a general discomfort in terms of open dialogue around anything to do with emotions, or bodily functions.

And that’s backed up by data - almost 50 per cent of women wouldn’t feel comfortable disclosing to their employer they were going through the menopause according to the afore mentioned survey.

Legal history was made in October 2023 in the UK when the first case of menopause discrimination was heard in an employment tribunal. The claimant experienced extreme menopause symptoms that led to bouts of anxiety and depression which resulted in time off work. She received a formal warning which she appealed unsuccessfully. Backed by The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHCR), she took her company to an employment tribunal.

In a separate case an employee was awarded a £37,000 payout after being told to ‘get on with it’ and that ‘everybody had aches and pains’ when she highlighted her severe symptoms which included heavy bleeding, anxiety and brain fog. At the conclusion of the case the employee said, “The stress was unbelievable and I know that I have gone through it and I have won, but I have still got this anxiety and disbelief at what they did.

“I have lost my self belief, I've got zero confidence now and I am very untrusting. It was the worst experience of my life.”

Dr Leonhard believes we need to tackle the culture around menopause. “Every single woman will go through menopause. We cannot ignore the impact it has on women’s lives. We need to remove the misogynistic attitude and the negative and dated language associate with it.

“One of the most effective ways to change the perception and raise awareness within a company is a ʻtop down approach’.

“If the CEO of a company speaks about a personal experience – i.e. their wife having a difficult time navigating the menopause, it makes employees feel more comfortable to be open about their own experience.”

This is an approach that has been successfully adopted by telecommunications company Telstra, who organised panels led by senior women within the organisation to discuss their own experiences.

A team Telstra employee commented. “We had a panel discussion with some of our most senior females in the international business who openly shared their experiences and to hear how they manage, whilst still maintaining the ability to carry out their role, is refreshing.

“The brain fog is real for me and due to how the menopause is now openly discussed within Telstra, when I’m having issues with getting the right words out, or losing my train of thought, I am confident and comfortable enough to say, it’s a menopause moment!”

“The flexible working policy has been amazing for me. It’s been in place for some time but knowing that I can start work late when I’ve not slept well is great. I’m also experiencing more headaches and fatigue so knowing I have ‘permission’ to take myself away from the desk and rest for a while makes me feel supported and that I can cope.”

Lian Keaney at Telstra said it was key for the business to have senior female leader who are experiencing the menopause themselves, to talk about how its impacting them, in order to help others realise that they’re not suffering alone and there’s a large support network in place.

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Lian Keaney and Gagun Gahir at Telstra

“We have also found that employees other than women have engaged with sharing their experiences – whether it’s partners, mothers, siblings who have experienced the menopause.

“We have invested in spreading more information via events such as Women’s Health Week where we’ve engaged with experts to talk about hormones, cervical screenings, persistent pelvic pain, nutrition, hormones and other related signs and symptoms of menopause.” Keaney explains.

The panel was part of a wider and well-received initiative by Telstra who introduced menopause guidance that clearly explains the menopause and its symptoms. The guidance also provides advice to people leaders to help them identify when team members are suffering with these symptoms and how they can support.

Telstra adopted the strategy in response to findings by their employee representatives team who research and understand what the growing trends are with diversity, equity and inclusion.

Gagun Gahir at Telstra commented, “It has become increasingly clear over the past few years that women’s health required more understanding from employers to attract and retain talent and to support women throughout their careers.

“We recognised that women were either reducing their hours or leaving the business in a certain age bracket and supporting female representation across all roles throughout the career lifecycle is a key focus, so we’ve have been working to find out what factors are driving this behaviour and ensure women feel supported.

“Menopause can represent a plethora of challenges, from physical health to mental health as well as everyday interactions becoming more complex, so we needed to ensure we understood and addressed as many of those as we can.

“We recognise that even though we may be one of the first wave of organisations in our industry to introduce menopause guidance, there is still a long way to go for it to mature”.

Much work is still to be done to remove the stigma of menopause and to educate businesses on the benefit of having a fit for purpose strategy in place if we wish to stem the tide of women contemplating leaving the workforce due to a lack of support.

What can you do to foster change?

Request a menopause ambassador

A menopause ambassador can act as a liaison between the employee and their manager. They can help implement simple workplace adjustments, such as flexible working, to support employees as they experience menopause.

Upskill managers

Provide regular training and empower leaders to foster culture of open dialogue to facilitate discussions and positive actions.

Approach a top down attitude

Encourage senior team members to be open about their own experiences. Male employees may have a wife, mother, sister or friend who has experienced it.

Provide resources to educate employees

Having an internal folder support folder that is accessible to all employees where they can access a wealth of support, charities and information that can support them in their experiences.

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