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Why talking more about menopause at work is… complicated

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There are many upsides for workplaces being more open about menopause, but employers should be aware of potentially unexpected pitfalls too.

Menopause has, in recent years, gone from being an issue whispered about in the shadows to one discussed in the full glare of mainstream UK media.

TV presenter Davina McCall, in particular, has become something of a menopause ambassador, openly talking about her experiences and filming two well- received documentaries about it.

Anything that de-stigmatises the topic is to be welcomed, but does this new perspective translate to addressing the menopause at work and would all women welcome a conversation about it in their place of employment?

Based on our research at the University of Edinburgh Business School, the answer is often ‘yes’, but sometimes ‘no, not necessarily’. Our survey of nearly 1000 women, working in a range of jobs, revealed we should be talking about menopause, but with a note caution that is sometimes absent from current conversations.

Empowered by openness

The women we interviewed were generally welcoming of the fact that we are now talking more about menopause but reported a low personal awareness of the subject – a reflection of the lack of conversation, until now.

Our study sample generally felt empowered by this new openness. There was a sense of regained confidence in realising that what they were going through is, in fact, ‘normal’ – but menopause experience is diverse, and navigation of its 30-plus symptoms can be challenging.

Women often related their experience through a narrative of fear of physical or cognitive decline that was separate from the natural process of ageing. The most common symptoms were psychological ones, such as fear of dementia-like symptoms, unbridled emotions and physical ailments.

It was, however, undeniable that knowing that your symptoms are nothing out of the ordinary goes a long way to alleviating stress and anxiety – which are themselves menopause symptoms.

Many women in our study welcomed the chance to talk about menopause in a work context, saying empathy can play a vital role. We know from previous research that social networks at work are one of the most effective ways to support women. Data from two studies I’m working on reinforces the notion that support from those who’ve experienced menopause first hand is particularly valued.

Findings suggest that support informed by lived experience might be more welcome from, say, a male manager whose wife has experienced menopause than a women who breezed through the experience herself.

Woman in her 50s with glasses on head and grey hair, looking up with happy expression, listening to senior woman at work,

Proceed with caution

Interestingly, we found that presenting menopause as a problem might not be welcomed by all women. While many organisations have started to put workplace adjustments in place, our data suggests women might need time to embrace these.

This note of caution needs to be heard as awareness raising may have unintentional consequences. Instead of feeling supported, some women reported increased anxiety over the array of symptoms.

Our data suggests women must be offered more than ‘workplace adjustments’ – they need to feel safe enough to accept those changes. Some of the women we interviewed voiced concerns that ‘pulling the menopause card’ might set the gender equality movement back in time. There was also a sense that an increase in menopause awareness might lead to greater stigmatisation at work.

This unease was interwoven with concerns about menopause being associated with bodily ageing or women being perceived as ‘being older’ at work. Women who were afraid of the menopause revolution backfiring on them at work spoke about this fear through a narrative of society’s expectation that women should ‘just get on with it’ within a ‘male dominated society’.

Too often women are expected to present themselves at work as though a natural ageing process does not take its toll on their bodies and minds. It was concerning to hear from a number of our participants who felt that menopause might be seen as an excuse, or dismissed as ‘moaning’.

Build awareness

There is work to be done translating the current wave of media awareness into rigorous research and, in turn, empathetic support that women feel safe to accept – or ask for when it isn’t available.

Let’s continue to build awareness around menopause because we know that women feel more secure in their changing bodies as they better understand its effects. We should, however, also remember the barriers that some women face.

For many, an open conversation about menopause at work might be crossing a deeply personal line, exacerbated by gendered and ageist stereotyping. Some people in the media and academia might find this hard to accept, but we need to listen. We will break taboos by increasing awareness – but with our eyes open to the unintended consequences of our research.

The views expressed in this section are those of the contributors, and do not necessarily represent those of the University.

Picture credits: woman with arm over face – fizkes/getty; women talking – 10000 Hours/Getty