Can I talk about menopause symptoms at work?

For our mothers, pregnancy was the workplace unmentionable. Once a married woman began to “show,” she was expected to leave her job and begin her new life as a stay-at-home wife and mother. Despite progress on many fronts, menopause remains the workplace unmentionable. It makes people uncomfortable. It can be embarrassing; it isn’t well-understood; it is the butt of stereotypes and jokes; it is inevitably linked to being old, infertile and irrational. 

"Workplaces that are accepting and open to women experiencing symptoms of menopause is a worthy goal."

In the workplace, the universal approach to menopause seems to be “don’t ask; don’t tell.” If you can’t see it, it ain’t happening. There are, however, a few problems with this approach.

While menopause is still largely in the closet, a lot of valuable employees at the peak of their careers are going through it. Now, most (75 to 80 percent) of women of menopausal age are working. If menopausal symptoms affect job performance and satisfaction, and if many of these problems could be addressed with more flexible policies and a supportive environment, then why isn’t it happening? Why are so many women struggling through the workday when fairly simple solutions could be implemented?

Because we are numerous and at the peak of our careers, one would think that accommodation, or at least conversation, would be happening in the workplace. But alas, in the US we are far behind our Western counterparts overseas. In Europe, awareness may be in its infancy, but at least it’s on the radar. For example, a poll of just over 1,000 women between 50 and 60 conducted by BBC Radio in Great Britain found that over 70 percent of women didn’t discuss their menopausal symptoms with their employer and about 33 percent hadn’t talked about it with their doctor, either. Half of the women surveyed said that menopausal symptoms had affected their mental health and one-quarter said that it made them want to stay home.

It’s a touchy issue, to be sure. Most of us wouldn’t want to be singled out for special treatment, and most of our colleagues and bosses wouldn’t want to draw attention to our difficulty or make suggestions about fixing it. Yet, competent, productive women still struggle through work situations that could be made bearable with some awareness and a few, simple adjustments.

So, what’s the balance, and how do we begin to move the needle so our daughters don’t have to sweat it out (pun intended) in an oblivious workplace? The Faculty of Occupational Medicine (FOM), the educational body of the Royal College of Physicians in the UK, has put together some fairly commonsensical suggestions in its “Guidance on Menopause in the Workplace,” adapted from the European Menopause and Andropause Society.

The guidelines are addressed to both employers and to menopausal-aged female employees, since both sides share ownership of a solution. Guidance for employers emphasizes an atmosphere of openness and dialog, along with training for management. It also suggests that employers provide some access to ventilation and temperature control, some flexibility in work hours, choice in types of fabrics and the ability to layer clothing when a uniform is required, and some ability to move around for sedentary workers.

Menopausal employees are encouraged to learn about this transition and to reach out to their doctors for help and information, to develop techniques, such as note-taking and using a calendar, to compensate for memory lapses, to reach out to colleagues, sympathetic managers and HR personnel for help and camaraderie when possible rather than trying to suffer in silence. The guidelines also suggest using mindfulness techniques to reduce stress and to consider lifestyle changes that are known to ease symptoms: weight loss, not smoking, reducing alcohol use, and exercise.

Can you talk about it? How far you can go will depend on your particular situation. But working toward a workplace that is accepting and open to menopause is a worthy goal, and now, given our numbers, is an opportune time to crack that resistance. We did it before, and for our daughters’ sake, we can to do it again.

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