This is a piece about menopause and the workplace – and it’s been strangely difficult to write. That might be for the same reasons that mean for many of us, our workplaces are slow to find ways to help staff going through the menopause continue to flourish and grow at work. Even though we all know it’s there, menopause has on the whole remained hidden from public conversation – like an iceberg – until you hit it, when there is a risk that it’s too late to do anything protective to limit any damage that could have been avoided… . It’s true that menopause has had some welcome public attention recently, with pieces in the press, on TV and in social media, raising important questions about health inequalities, and increasing openness and awareness of what this ordinary stage of development means. But at a personal level, it can still feel like something better not to claim as part of my identity, something to play down, or be funny about – certainly a long way from somewhere I think we could get, which is to discover what kinds of rich contributions women could make to our organisations if we can shift our thinking towards menopause as something developmental and potentially creative.
So what gets in the way? There is a lot of good information out there about menopause and the workplace, providing helpful advice on the need for policy, for transparency, for line manager training, for reasonable adjustments. They make the same good case as the arguments for investing in mental health and wellbeing for staff more broadly ie for the legal, financial and moral reasons to put thought, attention and resources into the impact of menopause on working women. The legal does seem to be slightly in the lead in the way these arguments appear (you don’t want to face an employment tribunal because your business doesn’t know enough about the experience of menopause and discriminates accordingly), but it’s also clear to see the rationale for supporting staff so that they remain happy and productive at work (financial) – and just that it’s the right thing to do (moral). And on the surface, it looks straightforward: create a policy, devise a system for ‘reasonable adjustments’ (from a desk fan to flexible working), encourage openness and transparency. But just to make it more complicated, any approach to ‘the’ menopause at work will only be helpful if it reflects an understanding that there is no ‘the’ menopause! Every woman’s journey through this stage of development will be different. It might start from a different place or for a different reason, and is likely to present a different range of physical and psychological experiences at different levels of intensity. Depending on those complex aspects of identity that make each of us who we are, and make us interpret similar experiences in very different ways from each other depending on what happens in our ‘internal world’, no two menopausal journeys will be exactly the same. If we then factor in the complexity of relationships in the workplace – who we think we are at work, what we represent to others and what they represent to us, what the aging process means – it becomes more complicated.
The impact of change
But there is one thing that is a constant, for all of us – change. People of a certain generation refer to menopause as ‘the change’ . Of course, it’s not the first change our bodies and minds go through – but it is the first time since puberty (and infancy before that), that the body has its own story to tell, at its own pace, and largely out of our control. Women can make a choice to interact directly with the physical processes and their impacts through HRT or equivalent interventions – but the psychological impact of the change is still important and needs some space and recognition.
We know that change can lead to greater creativity and satisfaction – but it depends on recognising what has been lost, and mourning it, and making space for what comes next. In the workplace, this may mean the painful process of noticing things that used to be easier that are temporarily more difficult – or it might mean recognising your changing place in the profile of the staff group. It might mean a shift in how you experience your working identity – or how you are perceived by others? The changes to what you need in the physical working environment need recognising, and the pattern of your energy levels, which may be fluctuating and very different from what you have done in the past. That in turn can mean a change to how your work is planned and organised, how long it takes to do things, identifying the best time to tackle certain kinds of tasks, which shifts work best for you. When menopause coincides with aging at a point when retirement starts to look like a reality (even if it is years off), it can have a subtle effect on confidence, and, depending on the culture of the organisation, on how others relate to us. And just as each of us is likely to have a story deep inside us that colours how we see the world, whether it’s what we consciously believe in or not, it can sometimes be a shock to discover feelings about being ‘an older woman’ that diminish us, or are even self-parodying. In our working relationships, we also encounter other peoples’ conscious and less known attitudes and feelings about who we are and how we are changing: an elder woman to be respected and learned from, or someone no longer to be counted in, or on…
For many of us, these kinds of changes start out feeling like (small) failures – things we can’t do anymore because we can’t do them the way we used to. And this is where a policy and line management system could be really helpful – a workplace that has got there before us, recognised the risk and created a policy that helps us to navigate a route that works for us can really help to stave off feelings of incapacity, guilt and low morale.
Creating an open environment
Being able to talk simply and straightforwardly about the impact of hot flushes, distractedness, and variability of mood on our work, without having to hide behind self-mockery, or apology, could make all the difference. All of the guidance on menopause and the workplace emphasises the importance of reducing stigma and creating an open environment. And it is, of course, really crucial – but given the widespread and longlived prejudice that has on the whole made the menopause a taboo subject, it’s also really important not to make claims for openness in order to appear to be an inclusive organisation without some recognition that it will take time for proper openness and transparency to really grow and be sustainable. A policy is important, but the dissonance that people can feel if the policy says one thing but their experience of trying to be open about their experience on the ground is very different could cause more harm than help and could drive the conversation underground again. So it may be really important to find careful ways to start to recognise, within our organisations, what some of the underlying beliefs and stories about ‘menopausal women’ are. None of us can avoid having feelings and thoughts that don’t fit with the way we want to treat others – but we are less likely to act on them if we know they are there.
So just as a starter, here are some questions that might be worth asking yourself, from the straightforward to the less comfortable. The asking and thinking are as important as the answers…
- What percentage of staff in your business/organisation are women?
- What percentage of them do you think could be approaching/experiencing menopause?
- Are there conversations about menopause in your workplace? And if so, what’s the ‘tone’ – jokey, dismissive, neutral, business-like…
- How does your organisation support staff during times of change?
- Think of words to describe how you feel about the older men in your workplace?
- Think of words to describe how you feel about the older women in your workplace?
- How do you feel about aging?
There is of course so much more to think about – work-life balance during menopause; the intersection between non-inclusive experiences for menopausal women in the workplace with experiences of structural prejudice in terms of race/sexuality/disability/class; competition, succession, gender and age. And in one way that’s very exciting – as women remain the workplace for longer, we may find all sorts of new and creative ways of harnessing the energy that comes with any new development or change. But it is likely to be a messy and uncertain process, and that’s a difficult one to manage for organisations needing to get on with ‘business as usual’. So the way forward seems to be:
- Start some private and public conversations about menopause
- Create a policy to show that the territory of ‘menopause at work’ is mapped already and no single woman has to be the first one to navigate her way through it
- Link up the conversations and the policy to start to build a culture of openness and to make sure the lived experience is the same as the espoused values of the workplace
Approach the work with good intentions and the determination to learn from experience – but be ready for messiness and uncertainty along the way as you encounter some of what lays beneath the surface of our attitudes and beliefs about this important stage of working life.