It’s a life stage not an illness yet the menopause is so difficult for some women that they quit work or consider doing so because of debilitating symptoms.
What's needed according to Loretta Dignam, founder of the Menopause Hub, is a more sympathetic workplace, and she believes organisations need to step up and offer meaningful support to women at this often challenging time in their lives.
“We did a survey last September with Ibec which provided the first Irish data on how women feel as they transition through menopause at work,” Dignam says.
“Some 12 per cent of women had given up work because of their symptoms while another 40 per cent had thought about it. Almost 40 per cent had missed work because of their symptoms but felt unable to tell their employer the real reason. Over half said their performance at work was affected a little by their symptoms while a third said it was affected a lot – not something employers can afford to ignore given 350,000 of the 570,000 women in the menopausal cohort are in paid employment.”
The Menopause Hub is a multidisciplinary centre specialising in menopausal health and providing education on the subject to the corporate sector. Its clients include Lidl, Bank of Ireland, indeed and Kellogg's.
Dignam says interest in the topic has been piqued by the need to retain staff in a tight labour market, a greater commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, and by women talking frankly about menopause on the Joe Duffy radio show.
“One of the questions we ask companies is how menopause friendly their workplace is and from there we design polices to provide the necessary support,” Dignam says. “Not that long ago, the idea of mental health champions at work was new but it’s been very successful. We’re trying to encourage companies to do something similar with ‘menopause buddies’ who will champion the cause.
“There are really four things driving developments at this point,” Dignam adds. “The first is duty of care to employees, the second is tackling absenteeism, the third is talent retention and the fourth is legislative risk.
“In the UK they’re already going down the road of legislating for formal menopause policies and, if it happens there, it will happen here. Also in the UK there has been a big rise in women taking cases against employers on the grounds of gender, age and disability discrimination. Menopause isn’t a disability, but for some the symptoms are so bad that they become seriously debilitating.”
IAPI, the advertising industry body in Ireland, recently hosted an open seminar on tackling menopause taboos. "With growing female workforce participation, greater diversity and inclusion, and the pension age increasing, becoming a menopause friendly workplace is the right thing to do," says IAPI chief executive Charley Stoney.
“The statistics alone are convincing. Around 50 per cent of the population will go through menopause, and the other 50 per cent may be impacted by it. Menopausal women are wives, mothers, sisters, colleagues, line managers, direct reports and peers. Increasing awareness and educating people is an imperative.”
Stoney has been very open with colleagues about her own menopause experience. “If I got a hot flush that was unsettling, I asked people for a moment to recover. This was usually on zoom during Covid and yes, some people cringed, or ignored me or looked uncomfortable, but I felt it was important to be up front,” she says.
“I think there’s a tendency to assume that your experience won’t be as bad. I thought that too – wrongly – and got a rude awakening because one of the main things that suddenly affected me was being unable to sleep.
“At IAPI we also feel it’s vitally important to raise awareness of the topic among our members because of the role we play in educating the public through our work,” she adds. “Secondly, over the next decade, around 40 per cent of the leaders in our industry will be experiencing or heading for menopause themselves.”
Also in need of workplace support are those going through traumatic events such as losing a baby or struggling to start a family.
Staff and experts
This prompted Vodafone Ireland, which launched a menopause toolkit for customers and a menopause awareness programme for employees in 2021, to initiate a major upgrade of its fertility and pregnancy policies earlier this year. Before doing so, the company consulted with staff and experts from the Rotunda Hospital to get a better understanding of what people go through and what supports would help them most.
The revised package includes extended leave for those undergoing fertility treatment or experiencing pregnancy loss and their partners. There are also improvements to maternity leave which has been extended to those starting a family through surrogacy. Those affected by pregnancy loss will receive extended paid leave whether the loss happens to them, their partner or their baby’s surrogate mother.
The company acknowledges that each case is different and that it may also be helpful to offer more flexible working arrangements to employees who find themselves in this difficult situation.
The increased use of surrogacy is a relatively new phenomenon in Ireland and as such does not figure in many organisations’ parental leave policies. However, Vodafone has decided that surrogate parents should be offered both preparation and maternity leave. In addition, all non-birthing parents are entitled to fully paid parental leave and a period of working reduced hours on full pay.