As the US workforce grows older, and increasingly more female (the number of women in the workforce grew from 49.7% in 2019 to 50% in 2020), employers will soon have to face talking about a sensitive, but important, topic: menopause.
A 2021 report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found 44% of working women were over 45: the age at which most women could typically begin menopause. It means almost half of working women – an estimated 31.9 million women – are either currently, or will soon contend with being, menopausal, and all of the symptoms that go with it.
Failing to acknowledge or openly discuss menopause in the workplace leaves women to balance their work while suffering from symptoms that can range from moderate to debilitating. Employees with severe symptoms may feel exhausted, embarrassed and insecure. They may also be afraid to seek support at work, especially if there are few women in upper management.
Yet without support, menopausal employees are more likely to feel stressed and isolated; are more likely to experience burnout and lower productivity; and could want to withdraw from certain situations. Ultimately it could lead to resignation/early retirement.
So, what should HR be doing? How can employers support menopausal employees as they adjust to the next stage of their life?
Here are a few key best practices to consider.
Asking: What does help look like?
One of the first steps an employer can take is to ask affected employees if they want support and what kinds would be most helpful. The best way to do this is by opening a conversation about menopause in your workplace. You can accomplish this in several ways:
- Use company-wide education campaigns, such as webinars, to increase menopause awareness.
- You could leverage high-profile employees, such as members of the C-Suite, who have gone through menopause and are willing to share their journeys.
- Solicit and designate “Menopause Mentors” who understand menopause-related challenges. Some employees may not feel comfortable speaking with their managers or HR, so this is a great way to help them find support.
- Create a menopause Employee Resource Group (ERG) that promotes support and a sense of community.
Of course, be aware that not all employees want help. Make it clear that support is for everyone, even those who don’t want to come forward.
Adjusting the office
The prospect of adjusting an office space to make it more comfortable for menopausal employees may seem daunting. Some worry that it will be significant, expensive or permanent.
Thankfully, not only are many solutions simple, they are easy to accommodate and quick to bring relief. Here are a few ideas to consider:
- Adjust the office thermostat for everyone’s comfort or make small fans available for employees to use.
- If you work in a typical office, allow employees to change their work locations for better ventilation, closer distance to restrooms or quieter spaces to work. It’s also a great idea to provide all employees with a general quiet area to decompress.
- For offices abiding by a dress code, allow dress code variances, especially during hotter weather (such as sleeveless tops).
- Provide sanitary items in bathrooms and make ice and drinking water freely available, if they aren’t already.
Because many employees with menopause may feel uncomfortable or unsure about speaking with a supervisor about their struggles, management must be equipped to respond with tact and confidence. Education sessions can help.
Begin training by informing managers of what menopause is, how it affects employees in the workplace and what your organization’s menopause policies are. It never hurts to get a refresher, even if company supervisors are aware.
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Consider role-playing scenarios, where someone is a manager and someone else is the employee. Then guide them how to have sensitive and supportive conversations. This can be a great way to help supervisors feel more comfortable before facing an actual situation. Remind them to allow adequate time and find a private space for sensitive conversations.
Be sure to cover the No’s, Nots and Nevers. For example, teasing about sensitive subjects, even if it is “light-hearted,” is never okay, especially from a manager. Another example is asking questions first: a supervisor should never approach an employee about menopausal issues. An employee should be the one initiating the conversation.
Finally, empower managers to act if an employee comes to them with concerns. Again, this could be adjusting the office space or spearheading an employee resource group. Train them on how to document those requests and outcomes. If a manager is unsure how to help an employee, be prepared to step in.
Accommodations and policy
Providing menopause support means going above and beyond legal mandates to help employees continue working during a potentially challenging stage of life. Every woman’s menopause journey is different. It’s therefore critical to ask, “How can I help?” when a menopausal employee raises a concern that affects their job performance or experience at work.
In most situations, employers need to determine what accommodations are needed. Examples may include those seeking flexible scheduling, absence or leave accommodations, remote work, a modified break schedule or time off for counseling or medical appointments.
While most women experience a natural start, some begin menopause after a disease, disorder, surgery or medical treatments. This type of menopause may be considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Remember, employers speak to their employees, and sometimes the outside world, through their policy statements or other workplace documents. So it may be wise to consider adding a menopause clause to your employee handbook. This can provide employees with all the information they need if they are struggling with the menopause.
Menopause can be nightmarish and debilitating to any woman. But with the appropriate accommodations, policies, training and support, employers can create a more inclusive workplace. Better policies don’t just build retention but, most importantly, they help employees with menopause feel like they belong.
Your 20 second guide: What is the menopause?
Menopause is when a woman’s body stops producing reproductive hormones, thus ending menstruation.
Menopause is typically experienced gradually, over a period of years. For most women, menopause begins between the ages of 45 and 55, although it can affect women younger than 40.
Menopausal individuals can experience hot flashes, insomnia, brain fog, extreme fatigue, joint or muscle pain and mood swings. Any one of these symptoms can disrupt work life, but during menopause, they are often experienced together and can compound one another.