Menopausal symptoms can range from the frustrating to the deeply distressing. Yet for years women have been expected to soldier on regardless in the workplace, doing their best to conceal the physical – and mental – manifestations of the so-called change.
According to research carried out by The Menopause Hub, 45 per cent of women say they feel their menopause symptoms have a negative impact on their work and 47 per cent of women who needed to take a day off work due to their symptoms say they don’t feel comfortable telling their employer the reason why.
Yet, it is estimated that nearly 600,000 women in Ireland are affected by the perimenopause or menopause at any one time, and it appears that employers are finally waking up to the need to provide the correct supports for this huge cross-section of the workforce.
Dublin Well Woman Centre medical director Dr Shirley McQuade says she has had many conversations with women around how they are coping with menopausal symptoms while at work.
Flushing is the most visibly obvious problem for women experiencing menopausal symptoms. “One woman described making a pitch for business where she was red faced and sweating. She said ‘who trusts someone when they are like that? That’s what someone does when they are lying’,” McQuade recalls. The reality is that it can be difficult to get comfortable, she says.
“A lot of workplaces are air conditioned with sealed windows so there is no control over the temperature in the office, which can be difficult when you are hot and bothered. Or they feel that they can’t have the shared office as cool as they need because someone is already sitting shivering as it is.”
Word finding can also be an issue, with cognitive issues and “brain fog” a recognised symptom for many women going through the menopause. “Many women find that a difficulty when they are giving a presentation or leading a team meeting,” says McQuade.
Mood swings and anxiety are all very common in perimenopausal women, she adds. “Added to that, sleep disruption due to night sweats can make it hard to concentrate at work.”
Employers need to be aware that some of their employees may be experiencing a difficult menopause transition, offering supports such as paid time off to attend medical appointments, McQuade says. “Some larger employers organise wellness speakers to talk about various health issues including menopause,” she notes. “Male employees also attend meetings and get some insight as to what some of their colleagues are experiencing – it is also good in that there is greater understanding of what other women in their lives might be going through.”
The Irish Business and Employers’ Confederation (Ibec) conducted a survey on the topic among its members last year. While just 13 per cent had some form of education and training programme on menopause for management and HR already in place, of the 25 per cent who said they were very likely to introduce specific supports, three-quarters of those said they intended to introduce this measure in the next one to two years.
Fiona Higgins, senior manager in IR/HR, Knowledge Centre at Ibec, explains that measures to assist women range from education and training for line managers, developing a culture of open communication on the subject area, practical support measures relating to the physical work environment and the development of wellbeing programmes.
In terms of how Ireland compares globally when it comes to addressing menopause in the workplace, it is difficult to compare due to the historical lack of discussion on this topic.
“The subject has not been widely aired in workplaces up until last year,” admits Higgins. But even with recent progress, “there’s lots of scope for improvement”, she says.
Lidl’s chief people officer Maeve McCleane suggests that the tide seems to be turning when it comes to bringing women’s health issues in the workplace to the fore.
“In recent years I’ve been pleased to see conversations on topics such as periods, early pregnancy loss and menopause discussed in the public forum,” McCleane says. “Historically, there has been a sense of shame or embarrassment associated with the symptoms of menopause but also a lack of knowledge and understanding of what the typical symptoms are. For example, many would associate hot flashes with menopause but are totally unaware that anxiety, fatigue, memory loss and depression are all common symptoms that can have a significant impact on a woman’s day-to-day life and ability to perform at full capacity in the workplace.”
The reality is that these are societal issues, not just “women’s issues”, asserts McCleane, who adds that recent positive progress by employers can now be built on. “We’ve come a long way in recent years but there is still a lot more to do in terms of companies taking a more holistic and inclusive approach to wellbeing and benefits.”
Lidl is walking the walk when it comes to recognition of the need for specific menopause supports. The retailer launched its Menopause Awareness & Support resource for employees and management in partnership with The Menopause Hub late last year.
“Lidl’s menopause support resources are designed to ensure women suffering with menopausal symptoms can feel empowered to ask for adjustments to ease symptoms without embarrassment, can carry out their daily role in a safe working environment whether in store, the warehouse or in the office, and can have open discussions with colleagues and line managers so that they feel part of an inclusive work culture,” McCleane explains. Specific supports include a generous sick leave policy, as well as medical and expert support. “If employees are interested in speaking to a medical menopause specialist, we have partnered with the Menopause Hub who provide virtual one-to-one menopause consultations, which we pay for,” she adds.
“Our aim is to create an environment where women feel confident enough to raise issues about their symptoms and ensure managers are educated on how to support their team members undergoing these changes.”