In an era of progressive strides towards workplace equality, employers have both an ethical and a strategic responsibility to prioritise wellbeing initiatives and leave policies that enable women to thrive professionally without compromising their health.
In many ways, this agenda is not about women at all. We want to support women to bring their best selves to work, because we want everyone to bring their best selves to work
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Fear of appearing incapable/unreliable or somehow ‘less than’, and the potential impact of this on their career, may be preventing women from speaking up about what they need from their employers in order to navigate the various health challenges they face at different stages of life.
Of course, we don’t want to further ‘otherise’ women in the workplace. Yet women do face a number of unique health challenges that at various times might impact their ability to physically be in the workplace, or to function at their optimum level within a rigid 9–5 workday. If we recognise these issues and build accommodations into our leave policies and HR practices, they don’t have to impact productivity or ability to work.
In this article, we’ll be focusing on the menstrual cycle and menopause as two major topics in female health that can impact on employees’ ability to perform optimally at work.
The workplace of the future must acknowledge and accommodate the biological realities that impact women. In 2023, the Spanish parliament introduced paid menstrual leave. Though a relatively new concept in many western workplaces, menstrual leave is gaining traction as a necessary policy. Countries such as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and parts of China have all implemented menstrual leave policies in recognition of the impact on women’s productivity.
Menstrual symptoms can significantly affect productivity and wellbeing. Of those who menstruate, almost a quarter say they experience pain that affects their ability to work every time or most times they get their period.
On the occasions where menstrual symptoms make it impossible for a woman to work, as menstrual leave is not a thing in the UK, employees must take sick leave. Yet given the cyclical and short-term nature of menstrual pain and associated symptoms, and Statutory Sick Pay only being paid on the fourth consecutive day of absence, in most cases this leave would be unpaid.
Considering there is still a 7.7% gender pay gap in the UK as of April 2023, the need to take unpaid leave to deal with represents yet another way women are disadvantaged in professional and economic life. For those with chronic symptoms and/or debilitating pain, the need to regularly take short-term sick leave could lead to financial hardship as well as hindering career progression.
Indeed, 25% of employees have reported feeling that their career progression has been impacted by time they’ve had to take off work due to menstrual health issues.
Menstrual symptoms cause women to lose on average 8.4 days annually due to lower productivity in the workplace, costing businesses an estimated £6billion per year.
These days needn’t be lost. If women felt safe to raise the subject of menstrual symptoms, and employers were happy to make accommodations such as remote working during sensitive days, this could go a long way towards alleviating discomfort and supporting productivity, without the need to take leave.
So why aren’t more businesses doing this?
There is still a bit of a cultural taboo around “women’s issues”, and an associated culture of non-disclosure at work – 25% of employees feel unable to talk openly about periods at work, and 89% of employees experiencing anxiety or stress at work as a result of their period. When we shy away from talking about periods and how they impact the ability to work, we miss out on a huge opportunity to make a big portion of the workforce healthier, happier and more productive.
Menopause is the natural biological transition that signals the end of a woman’s reproductive years and comes with a myriad of physical and emotional symptoms that can present unique challenges for women at work, affecting their overall wellbeing, productivity and career trajectory.
Hot flushes, mood swings and sleep disturbances – some of the more common symptoms of menopause – can lead to fatigue and impact concentration and performance.
The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) found that 59% of women experiencing menopause symptoms said it negatively affected their work, and 37% even considered leaving their job due to lack of support.
Yet empathetic policies that allow flexible working can empower menopausal women to navigate this phase confidently while continuing to work productively.
Menopause is not solely a physical phenomenon; it has a deep impact on emotional wellbeing. Hormonal fluctuations can contribute to anxiety, depression and irritability. The stigma surrounding menopause can exacerbate these emotional challenges, with an unspoken assumption that it’s something women should deal with privately.
As such, many women may feel compelled to conceal their symptoms or downplay their impact, fearing judgement or misconceptions about their capabilities.
Creating an open dialogue about menopause in the workplace is crucial to destigmatise the experience and ensure that women receive the support they deserve.
Menopause need not have a detrimental impact on women’s performance at work – this happens when women are forced to navigate these issues alone because their employer is uncomfortable with having conversations around an ‘awkward’ subject.
Yet in the absence of such conversations, menopause can have lasting effects on a woman’s career trajectory.
The CIPD study found that 22% of women reduced their working hours due to menopausal symptoms, and 10% eventually left their jobs.
The economic impact of this is substantial, both for the individuals and the businesses they work for. The decision to scale back on work or leave the workforce altogether may not be driven by a lack of ambition but rather by the need to prioritise self-care and enjoy a better quality of life during a challenging phase.
Employers who fail to recognise and accommodate menopausal symptoms risk losing valuable talent and contributing to the perpetuation of gender imbalances within their organisations.
We spoke to Kat Holmes, founder of MenopauseX, which takes a data-driven approach to understanding and managing the impact of menopause in the workplace, about the business impact of menopause, and what employers should be doing to create psychologically safe workplaces for menopausal women:
“By 2025, just next year, 25% of the world population will be menopausal, and 90% of them will experience symptoms. There are around 70 different symptoms associated with menopause, and one woman’s experience will vary greatly from the next. One employee might have severe hot flushes, one might have severe anxiety, another might have brain fog or sleep disturbance. These are all common.”
The unpredictable nature of these symptoms can make it challenging for women to maintain a consistent level of productivity, especially within the strictures of rigid working patterns. From sudden temperature spikes to mood swings, the physical toll of menopause is not only discomforting but can also impact interpersonal dynamics and collaboration within the workplace.
According to Holmes, figuring out how to best support menopausal women at work isn’t just a ‘touchy feely’ human rights issue, but something that executive boards can directly connect to the bigger conversation around company performance and the profit-making business agenda.
This is also highlighted in a study by PwC, which estimated that menopause-related issues lead to an economic loss of £14billion per year in the UK as a result of reduced productivity and absence from work.
As Holmes points out, “All organisations, whatever sector they’re in, are under fiscal pressure and will be constantly looking at ways to improve company performance, a huge determinant of which is employee productivity. There is a clear pathway through which you can trace company performance back to psychological safety in the workplace.”
So what can employers do to support their menopausal employees? Holmes says, “The key is workplace flexibility. You cannot have a one-size-fits-all policy.” For some people, some of the time, bringing their best self to work might mean working from home; for others, it might mean starting later or working late. Flexibility in work hours and options for remote work are hugely valuable in helping women to manage symptoms and maintain a healthy work-life balance.
Acknowledging the impact of menopause on women in the workplace is the first step towards creating a supportive environment, which requires a holistic and empathetic approach. By implementing supportive policies, fostering open communication and recognising the varying and unique needs of women experiencing menopause, employers can contribute to a more equitable work environment. This will not only benefit women but also strengthen the overall resilience and diversity of the workforce.
For employers who want to take practical steps to create a truly inclusive workplace and policies that meet the needs of menstruating and menopausal employees, there are several policies and actions to consider:
In the pursuit of workplace equality, extending leave policies to accommodate the issues that are unique to women’s wellbeing goes beyond mere accommodation. It’s about creating an environment in which every individual, regardless of gender, can bring their best selves to work.
The menstrual cycle and menopause are two significant focal points in understanding and addressing the particular hurdles that women face in the workplace.
In both cases, flexible working arrangements and inclusive sick leave policies go a long way towards removing barriers to work for women at different stages of life, enabling them to enjoy equal career progression opportunities and allowing employers to unlock the full potential of a happier and healthier workforce.
Extending leave policies for women’s wellbeing is not just about ticking boxes on corporate social responsibility checklist. It’s a commitment to fostering a workplace where every employee can thrive, regardless of gender or life stage.
The suggestions put forth in this article will enable the creation of psychologically safe workplaces that empower women and, by extension, fortify the resilience and diversity of the whole workforce.
This will allow employers to become catalysts for change, moving towards a future where equality at work is not just an aspiration but a lived reality for all.