Why it’s good to talk about women’s health at work, according to research

In the past couple of years, women’s health and wellbeing in mid to later life has gone from being whispered about in the shadows to being the subject of documentaries, newspaper articles and breakfast TV discussions.

This “celebrity endorsement” of menopause is normalising and destigmatising it through increased awareness. It means we’re talking about menopause more than ever before and it is also helping to reduce the taboo nature of menopause at work.

This is crucial since peri-menopause (leading up to menopause), menopause (the point at which one has not had a period for 12 months) and post-menopause symptoms can really change how women engage with work. Recent reports estimate 10% of women leave paid work and 14 million working days are lost annually due to menopause symptoms.

My research into supporting healthy ageing at work shows that when women have to manage menopause symptoms in the workplace, informal social networks are one of the most crucial ways to do so. This is the most direct way for women to feel supported in the workplace in terms of their broader health and wellbeing, but also during menopause specifically. I’ve found women often feel most supported by other women with a similar experience.

This article is part of Women’s Health Matters, a series about the health and wellbeing of women and girls around the world. From menopause to miscarriage, pleasure to pain the articles in this series will delve into the full spectrum of women’s health issues to provide valuable information, insights and resources for women of all ages.

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There is an ambiguity to women’s health and wellbeing in mid to later life. In one study of more than 1,000 women, 51% said they do not understand their menopause symptoms well enough to work out how to seek help. My research has also found that women quite often cannot untangle the symptoms of menopause from the effects of stress, interrupted sleep, anxiety, depression, ageing and the general impact of mid-life on the mind and body.

A workplace may also suffer from a culture of gendered ageism – discrimination against women and older women. This can prevent employees from entering into conversations around menopause. It could also drive a desire for less formality among the women who do want to have these conversations.

Informal social supports – chatting with colleagues or setting up informal groups to talk – are highly effective for women. But it does put the onus of maintaining health and wellbeing on to the woman herself rather than the organisation, which ultimately gains from her productivity.

My research shows the need for organisations to explicitly offer menopause, health and wellbeing support. The sustainability of support is also crucial when putting both informal social support and formal organisational support in place.

What should workplace social support look like?

Informal support could involve something like a lunchtime walk. This is a way to attract women to engage with a community of people at work with relevant experience. These can be advertised internally and require no formal workplace disclosure of menopause symptoms. Set at a regular time each month, these sessions can become a standard part of the working month. Word of mouth could also help to reach those who might be reluctant to join in a more formal activity.

On the other hand, formal organisational support could include awareness building around menopause, which can also build a sense of community. Workplace support, such as flexible working, is a legal right, so women can reasonably expect their employer to provide resources to support awareness building. And this should extend to the workplace as a whole – menopause affects women but everyone should be aware and be able to talk about it.

For example, companies could offer webinars (50 minutes is often a good length, in my experience) featuring expert speakers discussing menopause or other health-related issues. This helps build evidence-based awareness. Webinars can be recorded so that people can watch in their own time, although live participation, particularly with a Q&A, is desirable.

Group of women of different ages with yoga mats walking through a park.
Informal workplace support could include lunchtime walking groups.
Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

Of course, supporting wellbeing at work has been made all the more complex by post-COVID hybrid working practices. Indeed, my research has shown that the majority of women can manage menopause symptoms better at home, thanks to the “three Ts” of menopause support: time, temperature and toilets. If a menopausal woman has control over these aspects wherever she is working, it is likely to positively impact her overall experience of menopause.

Again, though, this puts the onus of managing health and wellbeing onto the person. The concern here is that structures that create an expectation that women cope better with symptoms through hybrid working run the risk of inadvertently reinforcing the taboo of menopause as something to be managed in the shadows.

Sustainable, individual support

Also, while organisations can and should develop health and wellbeing support initiatives in the workplace, it’s important to remember that the experience of issues like menopause is highly individualised – women can experience many different kinds of symptoms, or sometimes none at all.

Successful and sustainable organisational support will rely on a range of factors including the industry (is it “masculinised”?) and whether the organisational culture is open to issues like health disclosure. Also, team culture must be supportive and line managers should ideally be approachable and knowledgeable.

Workplace support systems for women’s health and wellbeing that reach each person are more likely to be sustainable. Organisations offering positive menopause stories, and senior, visible and credible role models will take an important step forward for women’s workplace health and wellbeing. Progress in this area relies on champions for change – not just on TV but in every workplace.

by : Belinda Steffan, Research Fellow in psycho-social aspects of women’s health in mid-later life at work, The University of Edinburgh

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