How to Accommodate Menopause at Work

Understanding symptoms can help avoid misunderstandings, career setbacks
  
 

By Dana Wilkie May 26, 2015
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The topic probably doesn’t come up a lot in HR meetings, even though—eventually—it will significantly affect the energy and productivity of most female employees.

The topic is menopause, and its symptoms—hot flashes, night sweats, insomnia, irritability, memory lapses, mood swings—can play havoc with a woman’s working life.

“With 50 million menopausal women in Canada and the United States at any given time, I think it wise and prudent for human resources departments to address and support this sector of the workforce,” said Donna Faye Randall, author of Menopause or Lunacy … That is the Question (Balboa Press, 2013).

Randall has long worked in the field of reproductive health and is a former executive director of Planned Parenthood’s Ontario and Waterloo offices.

Randall noted that when women were first entering the workforce in large numbers, they felt compelled to “stress that their differences from men would not adversely affect work performance.” Today, she said, HR experts need to acknowledge that menopause can be disruptive to a woman’s working life, which could in turn influence her career trajectory.

But it can be awkward for a woman to explain that it’s her menopausal symptoms—not laziness, lack of motivation or incompetence—that are affecting her work performance.

“All supervisors should be educated as to the effects of menopause to avoid misunderstandings and reprimands,” Randall said. HR managers, she said, can find plenty of information on menopause on the Internet, including medical sites and blogs on symptoms, remedies and workplace accommodations. “Your work culture [needs to] acknowledge menopause as a natural part of aging.”

In fact, she suggested that information about the symptoms of menopause should be mandatory reading for all employees, to “avoid embarrassment for everyone.” For instance, she said, many menopausal women have heavy menstrual flows. “If an employee must suddenly dash to the washroom during an important meeting, she should not be kept from doing so, and she might need to be in the washroom awhile,” Randall said.

Information on menopause can be left in staff or lunch rooms for employees to see. “Provide enlightenment in a casual and fun way,” said Randall, whose book is a humorous take on menopause. “This can also help employees to identify themselves as menopausal, which is especially important for women who start menopause earlier than usual. Some can’t imagine that the changes they’re experiencing are being caused by menopause.”

A more formal approach to education might include sessions with sexuality educators, nurses, hormone experts and authors, Randall said. If possible, allow time for employees to talk with these professionals to discuss their own situations and get advice.

Among the things workplaces need to understand, she said, is that hot flashes and night sweats are not only unpredictable and uncomfortable, they can prevent a menopausal woman from getting proper sleep, which could translate into problems while at work such as drowsiness and trouble concentrating.

“Many women could benefit from flexible hours during the height of their menopausal journeys,” Randall said. “If your workplace does not lend itself to this type of arrangement, then some leeway with tardiness would probably be appreciated, especially if the menopausal employee agrees to call in as soon as she realizes she simply can’t be [at work] right on time. In addition, being able to make up for lost time at the end of the day might be a solution” to problems resulting from insomnia or poor sleep.

Consider relaxing your dress code so that women can better handle hot flashes and sweating. “If your workplace has a strict dress code that demands business attire that includes suits and pantyhose, exceptions should be made, especially in hot weather,” Randall said. “Often, a menopausal women needs to shed her jacket in the midst of a hot flash,” she added, noting that pantyhose can be equally uncomfortable.

Other symptoms of menopause can translate into a lack of energy, distraction and low productivity at work. Among the “34 Symptoms of Menopause” are:

  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • Memory lapses.
  • Dizziness.
  • Incontinence.
  • Allergies.
  • Depression.
  • Anxiety.
  • Irritability.
  • Panic disorder.
  • Headaches.
  • Joint pain. 
  • Digestive problems.

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM. Follow her at @SHRMDana .

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