The conversation around how employers can play a role in improving well-being in the workplace is growing – from discussions about maternity rights, and menstrual leave, to how people can be supported as they manage life changes such as menopause.
Menopause is increasingly relevant when it comes to business. We are all working for longer and retiring later, and today’s female workers are the first generation to remain in the workplace for as long as their male peers. In addition, it’s estimated that there could be more than a billion women experiencing menopause in the world by 2025 – 12 percent of the world’s population – with many still actively working.
Organizations benefit from retaining the experience and expertise of these women, and their invaluable contribution as role models for less experienced women and, indeed, men. Yet research by the Fawcett Society found that one in ten women in the UK quit their job because of menopause symptoms, and a quarter of those with serious symptoms leave work altogether. Even if numbers vary around the world, this could account for millions of women globally.
Rachel Lankester, the founder of Magnificent Midlife, an online support hub for women over 40, believes there are enormous opportunities for organizations around menopause, if they can support their employees through this phase of their lives.
"Think of all the wisdom and experience these women have. Women bring a different perspective to business decisions. Let's not forget, we're 50 percent of the population – how can you possibly make business decisions without including women, of all ages?"
Lankester is just one of many experts BSI is working with to shape thinking on important issues like this, as we seek to create the environment to develop solutions that address them. Having gone through menopause early, aged 41, for her it’s personal, and she’s keen to dispel the potential negativity and fear around menopause, both for women and for organizations.
"As I went through menopause, I started to discover new narratives. Menopause didn’t mean I was any less of a woman than I'd been before. I see it as a very powerful transition to an exciting new stage of life. It’s not the beginning of the end, and rather than seeing it as a list of lots of symptoms with medication needed to fix it, we need to appreciate it as a natural transition."
She believes people don’t just leave their workplaces because of their symptoms and that gendered ageism also plays a part: "Women want to live life differently post-menopause. You want to have more say in your life. You want to live life on your own terms."
For organizations, she points out, losing that experience can be costly, and not just in terms of having to train other people into those roles: "We all know that companies with higher diversity do better, and people forget that age is a criterion for diversity as much as any other."
So, when it comes to offering guidance to organizations on this issue, it’s age she points to first: "Do you think about older people as being valuable or do you dismiss them? Do you talk about them as ‘coasting to retirement’? Do you think that only the young people in the organization will have the drive and the energy to push forward change? If you have that kind of mentality as an organization, nobody older is going to thrive there, and women especially are going to struggle."
Men also need to be included in these conversations, she believes: "There are a lot of men who do not know what it means for women to be going through menopause. That can lead to misunderstandings, misplaced jokes, and even colleagues feeling threatened. Everyone needs information so they can both be supportive and feel supported."
She worries that organizations could fall back on stereotypes or over-medicalize something that she sees as a completely natural process. Lankester believes a broader and more rounded approach is what is needed, rather than a one-size-fits-all attitude.
"Some women will struggle, and some won’t. When considering how best to help, the first thing to do is ask what people want and not just give them what you think they want. In asking, the responses could range anywhere from simply wanting an information session on menopause, through to a full-blown menopause policy, via conversations about menopause mentoring, flexible working, or, at its most basic, managing the office thermostat differently. "
"Engaging with the effects of menopause on women in work is about opening up dialogue and doing it at the pace at which the people in your workplace want to do it. I'm not a fan of enforcing things."
While every workplace and its national and cultural contexts are different, Lankester believes having initial guidance and global standards on good practice will be a significant asset for organizations: "Many companies don’t know what to do, but having a menopause policy is as sensible as having a pregnancy policy."
BSI is currently convening a group to develop a standard that will offer this initial guidance and is actively engaged in raising awareness of this issue and collaborating with politicians and businesses to consider how to support those going through menopause in the workplace.
"It’s just about thinking these things through in advance and having procedures in place that will enable women to work well through menopause", Lankester concludes. "It’s not a situation where they should need to struggle. Actually, they should be able to perform as well as, if not better than, they ever have."