Not enough workplaces recognize menopause as a legitimate reason to take sick days or cover treatment expenses, female employees said in a new report. But most women wish they would, because they suffer from menopause-induced fatigue, loss of sleep and disrupted mental health — and all that has impacted their work life.
Only about 14% of women believe their employers recognize the need for menopause benefits, according to a report from Bank of America in partnership with the nonprofit National Menopause Foundation. But more than half who are going through or have already gone through menopause say it challenged their work life.
“Menopause is a normal life stage in women’s lives, yet there is still a need and opportunity for workplaces to enhance their menopause policies and benefits,” Claire Gill, founder of the National Menopause Foundation, said in a statement.
“‘Menopause is a normal life stage in women’s lives, yet there is still a need and opportunity for workplaces to enhance their menopause policies and benefits.’”
Menopause occurs 12 months after a woman’s last menstrual cycle and marks the permanent end of fertility. Together with the period that leads up to it, known as perimenopause, it’s a natural biological process.
Most women reach menopause between the ages of 45 and 55, though it can happen earlier or later. Fluctuating levels of hormones, especially estrogen, during perimenopause, and lower levels after menopause can cause symptoms such as mood shifts, difficulty sleeping, memory problems and changes in metabolism. The entire process can last seven to 10 years, and is a crucial time for women to assess their health, experts say.
These changes can create confusion or even anxiety in women, because many are not certain what to expect as they approach menopause.
Menopause symptoms reported most often by those surveyed in the report included disrupted sleeping (45%), changes to mental health or mood (30%) and changes to physical health (20%).
Employees also said menopause has affected their relationships with family members or partners as well as their ability to focus on work and to plan daily activities, and sometimes even their careers, according to the report.
Menopause-specific benefits could include things like a policy allowing employees who are going through menopause to take time off or have some work flexibility, access to health professionals specializing in menopause, and health-insurance coverage for hormone-replacement therapy. Some employees said they would like to see employers host menopause-awareness sessions or set up cooling rooms where employees can take breaks when they experience hot flashes.
The stigma of menopause
Employers, meanwhile, say that they rarely offer menopause-specific benefits because employees have not asked for them. Some 40% of surveyed employers said they offer menopause-related benefits of some sort, but less than a third of women were aware of those benefits, and less than 10% reported having taken advantage of them. It could be because many benefits are not specific to menopause, the report authors noted.
In the U.S., employers are just beginning to catch up with their peers in the U.K. and Australia. A few companies have offered or are in the process of setting up menopause-specific health benefits to their U.S. employees, including Nvidia
and pharmaceutical company Bristol Myers Squibb
the New York Times reported.
The most common benefit is providing access to menopause-health professionals, which 40% of surveyed employers said they offer; 38% of surveyed employers have policies such as allowing time off or flexible work arrangements; and another 38% provide insurance plans that cover hormone-replacement therapy. Some employers also offer Lifestyle Spending Accounts with approved use for menopause-related services or organize awareness sessions or set up cooling rooms.
“Employers are just beginning to catch up with their peers in the U.K. and Australia. A few U.S. companies have offered or are in the process of setting up menopause-specific health benefits.”
Among employees who have used menopause benefits, more than half (58%) said it helped them in at least one way, with the main reason being that they can perform their best at work because of it. While 31% said the benefits helped them to do their job competently, 22% said they deal with co-workers more effectively. And 13% said the benefits helped them progress in their career.
“Menopause doesn’t tend to come up too much in discussions, so it’s never been made known how employees would feel about related benefits,” one benefits manager said in the report. Although that manager said she thinks such benefits are worth looking into, she acknowledged that menopause can be an “uncomfortable topic and experience.”
Employees might also not be aware of the significance of having a conversation about menopause with their employer. “It never occurred to me that menopause as a life-stage change should be something that could also be supported,” said one 59-year-old female employee surveyed in the report.
That’s likely because of the stigma attached to the topic, the report pointed out. Close to six in 10 peri- and postmenopausal employees said they don’t feel comfortable discussing their symptoms at work because it’s too personal. Female employees also said they are concerned about how their co-workers might see them — worrying that they would either not be respected as much by their male peers or would be perceived as old. One surveyed female employee also mentioned that she worries a focus on menopause could bring unwanted attention to women in the workplace.
Read:Managing your menopause symptoms: tips from women’s health experts
Menopause has long been a taboo topic in society. Women have been unwilling to talk about it because it’s actually two taboos in one: the stigma of women’s health and aging, experts say. But it has gradually entered mainstream conversations in recent years, led by well-known figures such as Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey.
“Menopause screams to all women loud and clear, we are getting older,” said Dr Terri Foran, conjoint senior lecturer at the School of Women’s & Children’s Health at The University of New South Wales Medicine & Health in 2022. And women have a tendency to keep their hormones to themselves, she added.
Communication on menopause is also lacking between healthcare professionals and patients. Only about a third (35%) of women ages 40-64 say their healthcare provider has talked to them about what to expect in menopause, according to a separate survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Open conversations about menopause can help women by providing more information, experts say, especially when there often a lack of communication about menopause.
“Right now, there are millions of women suffering in silence — trying to simultaneously manage menopause symptoms, stigma and their careers,” Lorna Sabbia, head of retirement and personal wealth solutions at Bank of America, wrote in the report.
Also read: Why are celebrities talking about menopause? Once taboo, the topic moves into mainstream conversation.