Everyone has a bad meeting once in a while. Maybe you didn’t get enough sleep the night before, or a hectic personal life is stealing too much of your brain space and you can’t concentrate. Suddenly, you’re asked a question and it happens: you’re sitting there dumbfounded and slightly embarrassed, unable to put together an answer. But then you put yourself together, ask to hear the question again, and move forward.
It happens. Your co-workers get it. No big deal.
It’s certainly happened to me.
But then, it started happening more. As a senior executive, I’m supposed to be articulate, strategic, just generally on. And yet, there I was, sitting with the rest of the C-suite, having just been asked a question and I’m there with my mouth agape. It wasn’t that I couldn’t put together an answer — I couldn’t even process the question. My brain felt like it was switched off.
In hindsight, I probably could have just said, “I’m sorry, I’m menopausal and the brain fog is really hitting me today,” and I’m sure my colleagues would have been understanding. I’ve been lucky enough to spend my career at progressive companies with empathetic leadership. But talking about menopause in the workplace carries with it the exceedingly heavy weight of societal baggage and stigma.
In the U.S., 68 million women are experiencing perimenopause, menopause, or postmenopause, with symptoms often starting between the ages of 40 to 44. And although it’s something that a full half of the population will experience, it remains one of the most neglected areas of women’s health, in large part due to the attached stigma of “getting old” that comes along with it. Only half of women, in fact, ever even discuss menopause with their healthcare providers, and nearly three-quarters of them don’t ever seek treatment for symptoms.
All things considered — although my experience with menopause was, well, thorny — I still count myself very lucky. Not only did I have relatively mild symptoms, I underwent menopause in a white collar environment that, to some degree, gave me the flexibility to take a beat if I needed a moment (or more) to deal with the symptoms I was experiencing. Even still, it was an arresting experience — I felt like I was falling apart, isolated and unable to speak openly about it at work, and unsupported by the healthcare system. When I questioned my doctor about my symptoms, she shrugged it off and said, “sounds normal.”
For so many women in the workforce, their menopause experience is markedly more difficult. They not only may experience more severe physical and cognitive symptoms, they are experiencing them in workplaces that are much more rigid and unforgiving, in cultures where they have reason to fear discrimination if they speak up. Menopause is a social equity issue — its downstream effects are felt much more acutely by those lower on the income ladder.
Even for women who are fortunate to be in high-powered, high-paying positions, the challenges of working demanding jobs through menopause symptoms can be enough to push them out of the workforce altogether, leading to fewer female voices in positions of power in an already overwhelmingly male-dominated business ecosystem.
The push for menopausal equity happens on many fronts, but business leaders have a central role to play in ensuring that women are supported through perimenopause and menopause. There are a few key steps towards creating a workplaces that are equitable and welcoming to women experiencing menopause:
Business’ role in changing attitudes about menopause
Implementing the right benefits to support menopause
Time, accommodation, and flexibility are transformative. Organizations should adopt flexible PTO schedules that allow for women to take time if they need it — or, if those benefits are already in place, leaders should communicate that menopause is a perfectly valid reason for taking time off. At the same time, hybrid work environments and remote work can help employees work in a setting where they can more comfortably manage their symptoms.
Providing educational resources about menopause
Given how little menopause is talked about, so many women are taken aback by the severity and breadth of the symptoms they experience, as well as the degree to which it affects their everyday life. Digital health solutions, like Ovia, can help educate women on what to expect in perimenopause and menopause to alleviate confusion. Ovia’s Care team is staffed with Certified Menopause Practitioners who can answer questions clearly and directly with clinically-validated information, who can direct your employees to qualified healthcare providers, and most importantly, provide tools to better advocate for themselves with their healthcare provider and in the workplace.
Creating a welcoming culture
Education needs to go beyond the women experiencing menopause themselves, obviously. While it’s imperative that women have access to the resources they need to navigate menopause, organizational leaders should encourage open and honest discussion throughout their organizations to dispel misconceptions and make women feel comfortable availing themselves of the resources that are available.
The next steps to supporting menopausal women at work
Throughout our careers, many of us have had to white-knuckle our way through a workplace that expects everyone to conform. We stay quiet while we’re doubled over with menstrual pain so as to not draw attention or judgment. We keep pregnancies under wraps as long as possible to avoid being perceived differently – or less – than our male peers. Menopause is an extension of that. So we opt to white-knuckle it, just like we’ve done everything else.
But that shouldn’t be the status quo, and it doesn’t have to be. While employers are increasingly supporting family-building journeys — including paid parental leave — it’s time to take the next step to support and retain our mature workers. Let’s remove the stigma of menopause where it is felt the most profoundly — in the workplace — with policies, accommodation, healthcare, and education that support people navigating their way through this natural occurrence.