One under-recognised factor why companies are losing women at senior level is the menopause. Elva Ainsworth looks at why organisations need to start talking about it – particularly if they want to see more women in the boardroom.
Although the latest statistics from the Hampton-Alexander Review show there are more women than ever on FTSE 250 boards, progress to get more women into senior roles has undoubtedly been slow. Coupled with this is the challenge companies face to stem attrition as more women leave than men at a senior level.
Women leave jobs for a range of reasons – a better role, maternity, child or parent care and a lack of sufficiently interesting career options are all factors but a significant, less visible explanation is the menopause.
The menopause affects every woman. Although some find it relatively easy to deal with, for most women it is a major challenge yet organisations’ talent support and wellbeing services are not equipped to help. A survey by the CIPD earlier this year found that three in five working women suffered in their job due to menopausal symptoms.
How does the menopause affect women at work?
The menopause marks the end of female reproduction and officially occurs a year after women’s last period. It has three different stages – peri-menopause, menopause and post-menopause. Peri-menopause is the transitional phase before this and the stage when most symptoms occur.
The hormonal changes of this stage are complex and vary enormously but, in general, levels of oestrogen fluctuate and eventually fall markedly while production of progesterone stops with ovulation and testosterone levels continue to decline (as they do from a woman’s twenties), continuing after menopause. With such hormonal changes, other things shift too.
Peri-menopause lasts seven to 10 years and can start from a woman’s 40s or 50s. The average age for menopause itself is considered to be 52 in the developed world.
Symptoms of this stage include irregular periods, heavier/lighter periods, worse PMT, breast tenderness, weight gain, hair changes, loss of libido, headaches, concentration difficulties, forgetfulness and urinary tract infections.
As you move towards menopause, symptoms include hot flushes, night sweats, depression, anxiety, irritability, mood swings, insomnia, fatigue, dry skin, vaginal dryness and frequent urination.
Not all women suffer or experience all these symptoms but 94% do, according to the British Menopause Society – that’s a lot of women who struggle.
If these women take a day off as a result, 47% say they would not tell their employer the reason and 11% say it has prevented them from taking promotions, a survey by wellbeing company Forth found.
Why is this affecting work so much? These symptoms are not so serious, employers might think, surely these women can deal with the odd headache or hot flush? But understanding what aggravates these symptoms may be the clue to the profound impact this has, because it is stress that exacerbates them.
Personally, I can remember the first time I realised that, every time I got into a bit of challenge while driving, I would also be overwhelmed with a severe hot flush lasting minutes and seriously (and dangerously) distracting me further. It seemed quite unfair but seeing that the stress was bringing on the flush made sense.
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So, how common are these symptoms? Forth’s survey found that 73% of the peri-menopausal women reported hot flushes, 63% said they regularly felt tired/drowsy, 48% suffered low moods, 47% struggled to concentrate and 43% had trouble with memory.
It is therefore not surprising that 34% said they had developed depression and anxiety and 9% had significant loss of confidence. In fact only 6% of the 1,000 women in the sample reported no symptoms at all.
What helps women at this stage is rest, a good diet of fresh food, avoidance of alcohol and regular exercise.
This may well be why busy senior female executives so often find themselves looking for a way out of a challenging, busy job – even when they have flourished in a hectic and busy working life to this point.
It can be easy for these women to experience this as a personal failing rather than simply a natural requirement for a more peaceful phase.
Post-menopause on the other hand can elicit a fresh new energy with a different focus and maturity – a time when a unique contribution can be made to work and society in general.
Nine out of 10 of women report that there has been no help in the workplace but what can can be done to help this transition?
There are a number of interventions that can help:
- Opportunities for lateral career moves, creativity breaks and/or sabbaticals
- Personal coaching or counselling
- Meditation and/or yoga classes
- Therapeutic massages
- Career visioning workshops
- Awareness training and education
- Access to energetic therapies such as reiki, homeopathy, reflexology and acupuncture
- Review of HR policies
Just as puberty takes its time and its pains, so does the menopause. Yet a woman, if supported appropriately, can re-engage with renewed and refreshed vigour, once the transition has been completed.
Maybe it is time to think differently about careers for people in their forties and fifties to prevent attrition of critical talent and to replace it with sensitive support and the maturity of experienced women in their sixties. First though, we probably need to start talking about it.