Putting menopause on the agenda

Menopause will affect half the world's population but it's very rarely spoken about, even less so in professional settings. So how do we get it on the agenda and how do we create supportive working environments for menopausal women?

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Photo: Jernej Furman/Flickr

Photo: Jernej Furman/Flickr

"In the 20 years I've worked in events, this is the first time I've heard menopause discussed," said an attendee at a recent roundtable discussion on menopause in the workplace.

The event, organised by Northstar Meetings Group and chaired by journalist Holly Patrick, invited 15 female event professionals to discuss the topic of menopause in the workplace. Their comments will remain anonymous.

What is menopause?

Menopause happens when periods stop due to lower hormone levels. This usually happens between the ages of 45 and 55, but it can sometimes happen earlier for a number of reasons including genetics or cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and surgery to remove the ovaries (oophorectomy) or the uterus (hysterectomy).

Perimenopause is when you have symptoms before your periods have stopped. You reach menopause when you have not had a period for 12 months.

There are hundreds of symptoms that accompany menopause, from ‘debilitating brain fog’ to ‘crippling anxiety’ and ‘furnace-like hot flushes’ to unpredictable menstrual bleeding.

"We bang on about the industry’s talent crisis but then ignore the masses of 45-55-year-olds we’re losing. We need to have more patience around recruitment and more understanding of why they’re leaving their jobs."
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How does menopause affect women in the workplace?

A common symptom among menopausal women is a lack of confidence and a feeling of inadequacy that can result in them leaving their jobs.

"I'm a freelancer and I've had to drop clients because I don't feel I can handle the workload," explained a roundtable participant. "It means I'm missing out on income, but some days I feel like I'm wading through treacle, so taking on more clients is impossible."

Other menopausal symptoms, such as insomnia, night sweats, heightened emotions and unexplainable anxiety, can compound feelings of inadequacy.

"I’m so incredibly tired. I wake up three to four times a night and average around four hours of sleep. It can make working really difficult," one roundtable participant added.

"I feel gutted that this is happening to me. It’s so unfair. Just when I get into the swing of life, perimenopause happens and it has floored me," another added.

A report by Fawcett Society, which polled 4,000 women aged 45-55, found that 10 per cent had left their job because of symptoms of menopause. It also found that two in five (41 per cent) women polled said they had seen menopause or menopause symptoms treated as a joke by people at work. Similarly, three in five (61 per cent) respondents said they had lost motivation at work due to their symptoms, and half (52 per cent) said they had lost confidence.

Among the women who had taken time off due to menopause, two in five (39 per cent) cited anxiety or depression as the main reason for their sick leave rather than sharing their menopause status.

Talent shortage

One roundtable participant addressed the ongoing staff shortage in the events industry. "We bang on about the industry’s talent crisis but then ignore the masses of 45-55-year-olds we’re losing. We need to have more patience around recruitment and more understanding of why they’re leaving their jobs."

The mass exodus of women leaving their jobs is costing the UK economy £10bn according to a menopause app, Balance. This figure includes the costs of recruiting and retraining people to do the jobs menopausal women have left, as well as the cost of absence due to menopausal symptoms.

Yet, despite the growing evidence that change is much-needed, the UK Government recently rejected a proposal from MPs to introduce ‘menopause leave’ pilots across England, arguing it could be ‘counterproductive’ and discriminate against men in the workplace.

The UK isn't alone. Currently, no European country has an official menopause leave policy - or has policies that address the needs of women experiencing menopausal symptoms.

However, Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London introduced menopause leave for City Hall employees in March. The policy provides practical support to City Hall staff going through menopause and requires all City Hall staff to have a 'general awareness of menopause and to challenge any inappropriate behaviour or remarks.'

But, with the UK Government taking a back seat, how does a majority-female industry help itself? What do supportive and encouraging professional environments look like for menopausal women? And how does it ensure talented women feel confident enough to remain in their jobs?

"There’s a lot of work to be done to stop the stigma and we need to talk about these issues with the respect they deserve," another roundtable participant said.

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How do we get menopause on the agenda?

Research suggests that menopausal symptoms affect 75 per cent of females globally. With the events industry dominated by females (77 per cent), we can't ignore the fact that menopause has, is or will affect the majority of the events industry, directly or indirectly.

Slicing through the stigma begins with clear communication. Like a fingerprint, no two menopause experiences are the same, but the chances are, if you’re not experiencing menopause, you'll likely lack an understanding of its potentially life-altering impacts.

“We need a communicative landscape; we need to talk about menopause,” explained an attendee. “Women often feel betrayed by menopause because they don’t know what is happening. We need a dialogue, we need understanding, we need to be ready when we arrive at it and we need everyone to understand.”

Bringing menopause into the common discussion will create understanding and foster a supportive work environment.

"Talking about menopause is an essential part of the inclusivity discussion." One roundtable participant suggested that breaking the stigma begins with inclusive leadership. "Inclusive leadership is necessary if we’re going to create supportive work environments. It’s a sensitive subject but we have to share lived experiences, be vulnerable with each other and keep talking.’

Another added, “Even if you’re not yet menopausal or will never experience menopause, educating yourself is massively empowering. In the workplace, that begins with fostering an inclusive company culture.”

There isn't a one-size fits all solution to creating an inclusive company culture, but it starts with opening a dialogue.

"It’s about having those conversations to find out what your staff need, and what will help them do their jobs best," suggested a roundtable participant. But conversations need to turn into practical solutions. "Actions speak louder than words and creating a supportive environment is about implementing strategies than helping people, not just talking about helping them.”

Conversations could result in workplace adjustments such as temperature-controlled offices or individual fans to help with hot flushes. Flexible working hours and offering duvet days on top of annual leave could also help employees feel supported in the workplace.

“It's about getting the best out of your employees and nobody can honestly say that they don’t want to get the best out of their teams,” they added.

What can you do today that will make a difference tomorrow?

Simple, actionable solutions could include providing a quiet room, allowing employees to take time out of the day unquestioned and championing flexible working hours. Training on proper workplace diary etiquette and taking thorough notes from meetings were also cited as useful tools to accommodate menopausal women suffering from brain fog. “Since I began menopause, I’ve become wholly reliant on lists and recording conversations for reference, otherwise I will just forget.”

Ultimately, the conversation around menopause in the workplace needs to continue. “We need to go beyond just signing a policy to actually implementing solutions. So often policies and pledges are written, signed and forgotten,” added a roundtable participant. “It’s about continued education, campaigns, activism, workplace committees and bringing everyone into the conversation.

"It’s helpful to see role models talking about menopause, talking about how it affects them and what helps them. We need heroes to be championing this.

“This is a people issue and we need everyone to be part of this conversation. We have to understand what menopause means for women in the workplace. It’s non-negotiable.”

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What happens next?

Include menopause in workplace well-being discussions and begin looking at the research which has already been done.

Generate discussion through your human resources department and if budget allows, hold training, education sessions and workshops to give everyone a better understanding of how you can be an ally to menopausal colleagues.

From us, you can expect to see a Menopause in the Workplace survey pop into your inbox soon. This will be open to everyone to complete – the more responses we get, the better understanding we will have as an industry in how to support women going through menopause.

Follow our ongoing coverage of menopause in the workplace on M&IT and AMI. Got something you want to add? Send suggestions, comments and considerations to hpatrick@ntmllc.com