How many woman hours are being lost to menopause every year? How much does that cost us personally and professionally? And what – as women, colleagues, and businesses – can we do about it? Julie Dennis, Menopause Coach and Trainer, explores how we can all take steps to manage menopause at work…
Why do we need to work harder to manage menopause at work?
Women currently make up almost half of the global workforce. Alongside increasing life expectancy and the rising retirement age these numbers are expected to continue to rise. Figures released by the Office for National Statistics show that the number of economically active women has jumped three times faster than their male counterparts over the past couple of years and women aged 50 to 64 are the fastest growing economically active group.
However, many organisations are yet to catch up with this changing demographic and lack the support, policies and culture to support the specific needs of women in the workplace. This is particularly true for women working through menopause. The risk for businesses in terms of loss of talent, knowledge and experience is real, with 1 in 4 women considering leaving work because of the severity of her symptoms.
The average cost of replacing an employee was estimated to be over $4000, and that’s just the process of hiring. The figure doesn’t include HR and management time plus the loss of productivity whilst bringing the new employee up to speed.
There is a significant legal risk too with a handful of high-profile cases coming to light in recent years. Notably:
- Ms Merchant v BT in 2012 – Ms Merchant was suffering from menopause related stress and poor concentration levels and provided evidence from her doctor to support this. Despite being required to consider health reasons in matters of underperformance, her manager chose not to and she was dismissed. The tribunal found she had been subject to gender discrimination on the basis that the manager would not have handled a non female related condition in the same way.
- Ms Davies v Scottish Courts and Tribunal Services 2018 – Ms Davies had been prescribed medication for menopause-related cystitis which was taken by dissolving in water. One day she was worried the water containing the medication had been drunk by two men and voiced her concerns. They hadn’t drunk the water but she was put through a health and safety investigation, disciplinary action and finally dismissed on the grounds of gross misconduct. The tribunal found she was unfairly dismissed and subjected to disability discrimination.
So the business case for supporting women working through menopause is compelling – finding ways of better managing the menopause at work is the right thing to do, and it’s commercial common sense too
And for women themselves it hardly seems fair that at a time when you may well be at the top of your game suddenly your body and mind seem to turn against you. Add kids and – or – aging parents into the mix and the overwhelm, stress and lack of specific support can knock your career off track.
Advice for women managing menopause symptoms at work
The physical and psychological symptoms of menopause women experience are far reaching in the workplace and typical examples include:
- Poor memory and concentration resulting in a drop in performance and productivity.
- Sleep disturbance which has been proven to affect memory, the ability to think strategically and manage moods.
- Mood swings which can have impact on the wider team.
- Hot flashes which aren’t just uncomfortable – they are also embarrassing and can result in a reluctance to attend internal or client-facing meetings for fear of visibly breaking into a sweat.
For many women the symptoms can lead them to doubt their ability to lead and manage both client and colleague relationships.
Don’t just take my word for it…
Here are a collection of powerful quotes collected during my Menopause at Work Survey in 2018 demonstrating how symptoms can directly affect job performance, interactions with colleagues and career confidence:
“Brain fog and debilitating fatigue, nausea and aching body have seriously affected my memory, my ability to think and problem solve and I’ve struggled to get through the day on many occasions.”
“I have forgotten to attend meetings and I’ve had emotional outbursts and tears which impact on my ability to manage others.”
“Very poor short term memory made it hard to remember facts and figures. Hot flashes in meetings made it hard to concentrate and were embarrassing. Sleep disturbance meant I was permanently exhausted.”
“I can see lips moving but really struggle to focus and take in what’s being said or understand it.”
“Brain fog and poor concentration means I find it takes much longer to do tasks than it used to and I find it hard to remain focused on the task in hand.”
“I find it difficult some days to recall protocols and guidelines off the top of my head like I used to. I doubt myself more over decisions I make, even when I know they are right.”
“Mood swings mean I snap at people who don’t deserve my overreaction.
8 simple, actionable ways to manage menopause symptoms at work
The good news is it doesn’t have to be that way and there are some simple practical steps you can take to keep you on track professionally.
Eat your frogs early and the biggest one first
This is a metaphor for tackling the most challenging task of your day – the one you would typically put off. Deal with it early and relax into your day.
Devise a strategy for managing email
If the first thing you do each morning is check your email you’re immediately letting the needs of others hijack your day rather than focusing on your own work priorities. Set specific times to read and respond to email.
80% is usually enough. So relax your expectations and accept that striving for perfection isn’t a good use of your time ,or a realistic outcome.
Develop a meetings strategy
There simply aren’t enough hours in the day to complete your priority work tasks and sit through lengthy meetings. Avoid non-essential meetings and when appropriate send a team member in your place..
Review your regular tasks
Free up time by ditching tasks that are no longer relevant. Is there a report you complete on a weekly or monthly basis that lacks value or would be better completed by a colleague?
If you don’t think a project is going to be completed to the agreed schedule alert the project lead sooner rather than later.
When the going gets tough, the tough get going
Seriously, take a break – five minutes away from your desk can dramatically improve your concentration during the periods you work.
Ask for help
Finally, if you feel you need to speak to your Line Manager, HR or Occupational Health about how menopause is affecting your work use this confident conversation framework to manage the dialogue:
- Book a time as you would for any other important work discussion.
- Prepare what you’re going to say ahead of the meeting.
- Talk specifically about how symptoms are affecting your work, e.g. poor concentration levels means certain tasks are taking you longer to complete.
- Offer a solution – for example, flexible start / finish times or home working to help manage poor sleep patterns.
Advice for colleagues
Typically colleagues want to help and be supportive but are unsure how to do so or are worried about saying or doing the wrong thing.
If that’s you, here are five small things that could make a big difference to team members working through menopause:
- Whilst women may use humor among themselves as a coping mechanism this is very different from treating the whole issue as a joke.
- A cup of tea isn’t the answer – caffeine can make symptoms worse!
- Whilst your organisation may promote a menopause friendly environment remember not everyone is comfortable talking about it.
- Be open to listening just as you would if a colleague was sharing concerns about an issue like dyslexia, anxiety or diabetes – you’re not expected to have a solution or be an expert.
- Don’t assume it’s the menopause – your colleague may be going through a divorce, bereavement or simply having a bad day.
Advice for employers
Ultimately what we want is to normalize menopause at work and employers can do that by focusing on three key areas:
- Awareness – raise awareness for all employees by introducing menopause as an inclusive topic.
- Education – educate managers so they understand the issues in the context of work.
- Support – provide specific support for female employees so they can make an informed choice as to how to manage symptoms.
To create a menopause-friendly workplace develop a menopause toolkit using the most effective means of communication within your organisation to support each of these three pillars.
Best practice examples other organisations have implemented comprise:
- Introducing menopause as an inclusive topic by leveraging what’s already in place rather than making sweeping changes e.g. promoting the employee assistance program for anxiety related symptoms.
- Utilizing the power of conversation. A consistent theme that runs through Kirklees Council’s approach to menopause at work is the importance of talking about menopause and how this can make such a difference. There’s a link to the case study at the end of this article.
- Developing a menopause policy or guidance document to inform leaders, managers and employees alike of your company’s approach to menopause related issues. One of the first organisations to introduce a menopause guide to support women in the workplace was Action for Children – find a link to this in the resources box at the end of this piece.
- Running expert-led workshops for female employees on how to deal with menopause symptoms at work and at home. These sessions can result in rapid improvements in symptoms like flashes, sleep and energy levels leading to a positive impact on mood, the ability to think clearer and achieve much more during the working day.
- Menopause ambassadors or champions can lead the change, take action and set up regular menopause socials. Creating an open forum for women to talk and share experiences can quickly make a difference to confidence levels.
If you’re struggling with menopause symptoms at work, there’s lots of help and advice available here on Health & Her. Try our Symptom Checker to shortcut to articles and practical products to help improve you workday.
About Julie Dennis
Julie Dennis is a Menopause Coach and Trainer who works with organisations across the UK to introduce menopause as an inclusive topic, and improve the experience of women working through menopause. Personally speaking, she has experienced menopause managed with and without HT, so can really empathise with women’s experiences, and provide practical advice that’s tried and tested.
Read the Kirklees council case study: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/menopause-work-case…
https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/menopau… ‘Economic transition: effects on women’s economic participation’
https://www.tuc.org.uk/sites/default/files/Menopau… ‘The menopause: a workplace issue’ Wales TUC report
‘Eat that Frog’ – Brian Tracy