I kept having fevers. I couldn’t sleep. I was feeling totally unfocused. I thought it was just an extension of my restless shark-like tendencies, but after days of unrelenting symptoms, I decided I should see a doctor. Here’s how our conversation went:
“What? That’s not possible. I’m too young.”
“Yes, it is. There are many reasons why it can happen at an earlier age than normal.”
“How in the world do women work like this? I’m in a fog and can’t focus.”
“Your symptoms are light.”
“You’re joking, right? It’s going to get worse? Women work every day feeling like this?”
I left the doctor’s office astounded, confused and angry. If many in our workforce are dealing with these symptoms on a daily basis, why aren’t there lobbyists hired? Associations created? Women revolting in the street? Leaders talking about this regularly?
As I decided to write about this, I was warned by two professional, well-educated colleagues not to do so. They said:
“If you write about this, people will know how old you are and never hire you again.”
“If you write about this, you’ll just reinforce the stereotype that women are weepy and unreliable. Just leave it alone.”
Leave it alone? I have daily hot flashes, which means instead of using my EQ 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 their (not so light) symptoms at work? And what about the leaders who have to manage people with these symptoms?
Let’s look at the facts about menopause in the workplace.
Most women officially reach menopause between the ages of 45 and 55 and symptoms can last between two and ten 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 an estimated 6,000 U.S. women reach menopause every day (over 2 million per year).
An average of 27 million women between 45 and 64 years, which comprises 20% of the American workforce, are experiencing 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.
So what goes on when a woman is having menopausal symptoms? I mentioned the hot flashes (which I thought were fevers) and insomnia I was experiencing. 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 menopause. Men don’t want to talk about “women’s health issues.” It’s discussed so little that most people are unaware of the workplace impacts 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. Hush hush. Don’t say it out loud. Don’t make a big deal. Yet, how can we not talk about this when BOHRF reports that almost 20% of women surveyed believe menopause has had a negative impact on their managers and colleagues’ perceptions of their competence?
Of the women who had taken time off of work due to menopausal symptoms, only half of them disclosed the real reason for their absence. Some women even considered working part time to deal with symptoms but feared this would negatively impact their career. The research also showed that over half of the women studied reported that they were not able to negotiate flexible work hours or practices when dealing with symptoms. All of these realities contribute to the lack of confidence some women feel as even just the lack of sleep affects them cognitively and physically. One women says:
“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”
So we have part of a workforce that is less productive and effective, yet we all tiptoe around the topic. Why aren’t there more resources going toward this issue from a productivity standpoint alone?
We have to remember that most organizational systems were built by and for men. They were rarely built with women in mind, let alone women with menopausal symptoms. So there is an inherent sexism and bias built into organizations that disadvantage part of the workforce throughout all phases of their careers.
If the tech world feels that 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.
And if you were brave enough to mention the hot flash, you might face the gender stereotypes of women weeping in the halls and being unreliable. So it’s a no-win situation.
And even if you have a leader who is educated about menopause, she or he may end up fighting misinformation and lack of support to find a solution. So what’s a leader supposed to do?
Here are some ideas for creating a menopause friendly workplace, which will benefit both those experiencing menopause (i.e. 20% of the workforce) and 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 who have been educated about menopause might let an employee take control of the thermostat instead of thinking their employee is nit-picky when 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 a few) 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 would also speak to leadership or management on behalf of women if needed/requested. This advocate could come from any department at any level, only dependent on their specific 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 advisors. Employees can call this number for support in health-related manners such as losing weight, quitting smoking, or getting more physically fit. By adding menopausal support to your wellness support program, women can then get support and information by phone when experiencing menopausal symptoms to better learn how to manage symptoms from a health perspective, and cope with work while not 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 such as acupuncture, Chinese medicine, bio-identical hormone replacement, and various other practices used by integrative health practitioners. Though women often see significant improvements, paying out of pocket for integrative health treatments can be cost prohibitive. Including these options as part of a benefits package would enable women to seek treatments that they are comfortable with and that 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 to the wellness week 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 diet to help with symptoms, or 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 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. Allowing women to work from home when needed will also be helpful, so they can manage their symptoms at home if needed.
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 the inherent challenges. 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.
Anne Loehr is an internationally sought after keynote speaker, writer, consultant, and trainer. She helps leaders in large organizations connect today’s everyday decisions to the future workplace. Her end goal is to help organizations retain their top talent and not only survive, but thrive. To learn more about Anne, check out www.anneloehr.com or follow her on Twitter.