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Time to open up about menopause in the office

The workplace can be a difficult place to navigate for menopausal women. More employers need to start conversations around their health

Studies indicate that women are even willing to retire early because of the discomforts of menopause.(iStockphoto)

By Reem Khokhar

LAST PUBLISHED 19.02.2024  |  06:30 AM IST

Asking people about menopausal support in their workplace elicits varied responses, most of them bordering on mild confusion or a complete blank. “I’ve never thought about it"; “I didn’t realise this was possible or available"; or “not relevant for me"—these are unsurprising responses, given that women’s health, especially menopause, is usually not openly discussed at the workplace. Many individuals who reach the stage of menopause—the time when menstruation stops (occurs at a mean age of around 52 years), resulting in symptoms like hot flashes, vaginal dryness, sleep disturbances, anxiety and depression—prefer not to talk about it either.

Delhi-based education consultant Shivani Dayal Kapoor, for instance, says, “I wouldn’t want any attention drawn to myself or my competency to be questioned." The 52-year-old would rather manage her symptoms privately, setting reminders to help her if she is forgetting something, or putting in more time to complete a task.

The reluctance to discuss menopause openly is understandable, considering its symptoms are often not acknowledged and are usually considered something to be hidden at work.

Also read: How to stop menopause from derailing careers

Last year, US non-profit Mayo Clinic concluded in a study that menopause symptoms have an impact on worker absenteeism, productivity, increased direct and indirect medical costs, and result in lost opportunities for career advancement. Plus, as Kapoor says, there is fear that conversations about menopause leave might make the employer feel it is more expensive or challenging to hire an older woman.

A year before Mayo, pharmaceutical company Abbott did a survey along with market research agency Ipsos, which spoke to 1,200 Indian women. Over 80% of those surveyed said menopause affected their work life, 18% worked through pain and other symptoms, and 26% took time off to manage the symptoms without divulging the cause.

However, a small percentage of employers are attempting to change the way menopause and its symptoms are dealt with in the workplace, for they believe it helps retain talent and promotes employee wellbeing and builds an inclusive culture.

EzeRx is one of them. The Bhubaneswar-based medical technology company regularly organises discussions for employees, including ones on menopause and menstruation. “We provide this platform to share insights on navigating the challenges of this time, best practices, and addressing the do’s and don’ts when supporting a colleague experiencing menopausal symptoms," says founder and CEO Partha Pratim Das Mahapatra.

It has also equipped its facilities with adaptable air-conditioning and ventilation to enhance overall comfort, introduced flexible working hours, and offers work-from-home should the need arise.

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Even such small steps can help women feel at ease during a transitional period in their lives. Menopause is a year after a woman’s last period. Perimenopause, or the menopausal transition, the period of hormonal changes preceding menopause, usually occurs between one’s early 40s to mid-50s and can last roughly between 7 to 14 years.

Dr. Nozer Sheriar, co-author of Finding Your Balance: Your 360-degree Guide To Perimenopause And Beyond, describes menopause as an event in the middle of a process, between peri- and post-menopause. “It is a disruption, disturbing the balance and bringing hormonal challenges. Among the most important issues that trouble women at this time include hot flashes, which can be extremely disruptive," says the consultant gynaecologist and obstetrician at Breach Candy and Hinduja Hospitals in Mumbai, and past secretary general of the Federation of OBGYN Societies of India. “Mentally and emotionally, one could feel low, angry, or anxious. These physical, emotional, or mental symptoms could impact work life."

Studies indicate women are willing to retire early because of menopause. “This is not good for any organization if your assets are so disturbed that they are thinking of quitting. Companies need to take care of women as an essential part of your workforce," says Dr. Sheriar.

Often women themselves don’t understand that the stress, unexplained weight gain and fatigue they are experiencing is due to menopause, making it all the more essential for organisations to address menopause, says Shaili Chopra, founder of SheThePeople, a digital media website that focuses on women-related news, and Gytree, a women’s health platform.

“There is a high amount of stigma in admitting menopause," says Chopra. “It’s a life stage that women are conditioned to manage or drive through."

Gytree has worked with some organisations on building awareness around women’s health, through memberships to their programmes which provide information, products, services, access to medical and health specialists, and more. They have also worked with some companies on educational sessions that included various life stages women go through. “But there are only a few progressive companies looking at this," says Chopra. “This is an early stage for menopause in corporate India."

Health comes first

When Standard Chartered Bank announced a global rollout of medical coverage for treatment of menopause-related symptoms to all employees and their partners in October last year, the first thing on their priority list was to simply make people talk. “We want to break the taboo," says Shivshanker S.V., Standard Chartered’s India and South Asia head (human resources).

The bank has been organising sensitisation sessions, email campaigns, e-learnings, and toolkits to create awareness about menopause since 2021. With the medical coverage announcement, it wanted to “further encourage colleagues to open up about their experience and ask for support for themselves or a partner or family member", he says. The coverage includes access to specialized medical practitioners and prescription medication. This is the most recent measure in their attempts to create a menopause-friendly environment. 

But, is it enough?

At this point, more conversations and sensitisation are needed to destigmatise this universal life phase, says Dr. Sheriar. “You don’t have to wait for women to ask for it," the expert adds. During his educational sessions with companies, he often notices how illuminating it was for everyone to hear women in the audience talk about menopausal challenges and how menopause remains unacknowledged by their employers, close friends or family, and even their doctors, who tell them they just have to live with it.

There is an obvious need for a nuanced approach as well. Besides building awareness, offering medical coverage and flexible working options, other menopause-friendly practices can include giving wellness programmes that educate and inform them about the coping strategies for physical, mental, and emotional symptoms. Access to counselling and employee resource groups can be helpful, as is providing discreet guidance and communication channels. Sensitising coworkers and managers is crucial to respectfully address menopause’s challenges. “When we have these conversations, we change the way we approach women’s health. Ignorance is not an option," Chopra says. “Menopause happens when women are in senior roles. They don’t want to release the ambition pedal, and don’t want to put their health first. Companies can help change that."

Reem Khokhar is a Delhi-based writer.

Also read: 8 subtle signs of menopause women tend to overlook