As an HR leader, the health and wellbeing of your workforce is a priority every week of the year, but it’s Women’s Health Week, a timely reminder to put the health of women in the workforce under the microscope.
When it comes to women’s health, we’ve come a long way in recent years. From period positivity in the workplace – with many workplaces providing supplies onsite and work to remove the menstrual cycle stigma – to normalising talk about mental health, caring responsibilities and burnout.
But menopause and perimenopause remain shrouded in darkness and secrecy, the last great women’s health at work taboo.
Without the right support, we risk losing talented women in their 40s, 50s, and beyond as they struggle with menopause symptoms, often on top of caring responsibilities, mental load and stress. And these women are often the keepers of wisdom, expertise and connections in companies who we can’t afford to lose.
Behind closed doors
So, why aren’t we talking more openly about menopause and work? The societal algorithm around gender norms and stereotypes, the gender code, sends the message that menopause is a women’s issue and something women should deal with behind closed doors.
As a society, we don’t educate women, men and all genders about the end of a woman’s menstrual cycle the same way we do about the beginning of it, and with our culture continuing to value and elevate youth over age, women can feel that menopause is a slippery slope down to old age and irrelevancy.
This means many women often feel guilt, shame and embarrassment around menopause. They see the symptoms of menopause as weakness or incompetence, which is particularly painful for women who’ve built their identity in the workplace, and their self-worth around their intelligence, work ethic and reliability. The realities of having these abilities reduced, seemingly overnight, can be devastating.
The 50+ talent drain
While all employees are valuable, women in their fifth decade and beyond are often integral to the business – they’ve built years of experience, cultural knowledge, and strong networks within and outside of the business. Many have also not received the support and opportunities currently available, so often, they have made sacrifices and faced many challenges to remain at work. They’re also often the people most likely to carry the lion’s share of “invisible work” – such as volunteering for employee resource groups and new initiative projects, speaking on panels, mentoring and checking in on team members to set others up for success.
While quantifying this wisdom, contribution, and care is much harder than quantifying productivity outputs like sales made, deals won, and money saved, there’s no denying these women are worth their weight in gold.
But this age group is under immense pressure. Many of them are in the “sandwich generation” life stage, caring for both their children and their aging parents. They’re carrying a heavy mental load at work and outside of work, and they’re often struggling with overwhelm, their own health and burnout.
Add to this mix the symptoms of menopause, and it’s no surprise many of these women choose to walk away from full-time work.
When we look at gender pay gaps across various age groups data from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, we see that women under 24 years of age earn an average of $1,413 per year less than men, with an average remuneration gender pay gap of 2.5 per cent, and this increases with age, peaking for employees aged 55 to 64 years at a gender pay gap of 31.9 per cent, reflecting the drop-off of women from full-time work and senior positions as they reach this stage of life.
How can we be more supportive?
Menopause isn’t just about symptoms like hot flashes; it has a broader impact than that. For example, at work, it can impact someone’s ability to focus, their levels of stress and anxiety, their confidence, and their ability to connect with themselves, their work, and the people around them. Many women struggle with feelings of isolation and loneliness during this time.
For HR leaders, there are many practical ways to be more inclusive and supportive, without creating resentment or adding to the “not another accommodation for women at work” trope.
- Identify the need and get crystal clear on it: Ascertain what stage your company, culture and people are at in terms of awareness, knowledge and willingness to learn more.
- Ask for input from your people: This includes women experiencing perimenopause and menopause and the people they interact with, such as leaders, colleagues and direct reports. Ask what resources (education and information) and support (coaching, policy updates and culture tweaks) are needed. Conduct employee surveys, focus groups, listening sessions and conversations.
- Incorporate perimenopause and menopause into existing wellbeing, mental health, safety and DEI strategies: This can be incorporated into existing policies such as healthy aging policies. Leverage the ecosystem of support to help people bring their best selves to work and identify ways to adapt these to peri and menopause rather than starting from scratch.
- Engage external experts with a deep knowledge of peri and menopause: There are some incredible people (mostly women) and businesses, such as Sage Women’s Health, that can help you make an impact on individual women, their teams and your company culture by providing education, support, coaching, health advice, policy and strategy.
- Build support and resources capacity within your business: By creating opportunities for women to speak freely with each other. This might mean piggybacking off existing groups and networks to provide a space to share what’s working, what’s not, and ways to tackle what’s next.
A friend of mine recently highlighted the value of peri and menopausal women in the workplace to me through a conversation she had with her partner. They’re both doctors who work in a hospital, and she’s a huge advocate for supporting others as they navigate peri and menopause, currently experiencing perimenopause herself.
Her husband asked her why she dedicates so much time and energy to the issue: is it really that important?
She said: “Imagine if a handful of your most senior nurses resigned because they couldn’t manage through menopause? What would happen?”
He said: “The place would fall apart. They know how everything runs, who does what, and are basically the glue that holds everything together.”
“Exactly!” she said. “That’s why we need to keep them well and at work.”
Does this example resonate with you and your workplace? Let’s help our wise women to stay well and at work.
By Danielle Dobson, founder of Code Conversations and the author of Breaking the Gender Code. She works with leaders in business, HR, DEI and wellbeing as an adviser to help them attract, engage and develop talented people.
Comments powered by CComment