Employers have been falling over themselves to improve benefits packages as part of smart talent-retention schemes, but there is one cohort of employees whose needs remain woefully underserved: women undergoing menopause.
Women between the ages of 45 and 55 years old face significant challenges in the workplace, due to menopause. Headaches or migraines, muscle and joint pain, insomnia, palpitations and hot flushes are just some of the physical symptoms of menopause. Plus fatigue or “brain fog” as some women have described it, can result in additional anxiety for women who feel they have to hide their symptoms from colleagues at work, or risk facing ridicule or being sidelined.
And yet – for all the talk of improving the balance of experienced female talent in senior positions within companies – the stigma around the topic has meant that very few employers are even considering how to offer support to women in this stage of their lives and careers.
The North American Menopause Society found that an estimated 1.1 billion women worldwide will have experienced menopause by 2025, with millions more going through perimenopause – the period of transition before menopause. A survey from Carrot Fertility, a global fertility healthcare and family-forming benefits provider, of 1,000 U.S. workers experiencing perimenopause or menopause found that 79% describe working during menopause as challenging, more than other common life stages including starting a new job or family. With that, most women also reported the need to take time off and 54% have encountered at least one menopause-driven work challenge, like the loss of work time and job security concerns.
Yet, most women surveyed were unfamiliar with workplace menopause benefits and that it could even be an option. “A lot of women take time off for symptoms associated with menopause, but never talk about it,” said Brooke Quinn, chief customer officer at Carrot Fertility. “I doubt women are going to their leaders and saying they need to take time off because they’re going through menopause.”
There have been large strides in the workplace for women, nonbinary and trans individuals, like working towards closing the pay gap with pay transparency for example. However, the stigma around topics like menopause, similar to menstrual leave, means conversations about how to provide benefits for those undergoing it, are extremely rare.
“It will be a little bit like the mental health argument,” said Kathy Abernethy, director of menopause services at digital health app Peppy. “You were worried you were going to make things worse or stir things up. We now know we need to encompass the whole mental health agenda. That’s what we need to do with menopause.”
According to the Carrot Fertility survey, 77% of respondents shared that they’re uncomfortable talking with executives about menopause and 63% feel uncomfortable talking with their HR department.
Across the pond, the U.K. is a little further ahead than the U.S., and employer conversations around how to better support this began a few years ago. One in four women in the U.K. has considered giving up work due to menopause because they feel like they aren’t able to manage it. Abernethy said it is now more common for U.K. employers to include menopause in benefit offerings and educate employees about it.
“In the U.K. you don’t draw your state pension until you’re 67 and you’re likely to continue working much longer, so most women now experience menopause whilst still at work,” said Abernethy. “That’s a change from a generation ago.”
However, since the pandemic, more and more employers are considering how they can retain their employees. Menopause-related benefits could be one way to retain female workers who are in senior-level positions. Including these benefits also shows that an employer is being inclusive of all employees’ needs.
“It’s all about retaining staff and keeping your high-quality women of an age which are going to stay with you,” said Abernethy. “If you look after them in their 50s, they’ll stay with you until they retire.”
“I can understand that in certain cases the people who are determining benefits at their companies don’t always know how to tackle this,” said Julia Cartwright, president of fitness app P.volve. “The first thing is to listen and learn.”
“Menopause is coming out of the backroom of conversation,” she added. “We’re trying to squash the taboo. It takes leadership to be thinking about these things and we need to also be advocates for ourselves.”
Menopause benefits can take shape in many different ways. It might look like time off or having access to educational materials and the right healthcare providers, but it can depend on the needs that individual employees express. Cartwright suggests conducting confidential surveys to help learn what a specific workforce needs.
“Women are constantly bounced around the healthcare system, trying to find access to care, trying to find a specialist that can actually help them with the symptoms that they’re facing,” said Quinn. “That can be incredibly taxing from a time perspective.”
Carrot, for example, offers benefits of improved access to providers through a specialist network, clinically supervised education and group support. Meanwhile, P.volve offers a “Moving with Menopause” program, a fitness and education program created to support women through menopause. Peppy, which works with over 250 leading U.K. employers, connects employees to menopause health experts.
Cartwright suggests that HR departments should also measure progress after implementing a menopause benefit, including anecdotal information and how many paid sick days are taken for it when that information is shared. Aside from offering access to care, experts also say building a sense of community in the workplace can be beneficial, which might take the shape of employee resource groups.
“That’s normalizing the conversation and bringing women together that are going through common situations and symptoms,” said Quinn. “We have a lot of work to do.”