You have work projects due, presentations to give, and a boss who thinks “menopause” is a button on his remote control. You’re hot, you're sweaty, and you haven’t had a decent night’s sleep in days. You’ve been making Post-It notes to help with brain fog but you can’t remember where you stuck them. For those of us between the ages of 45 and 54 (that’s 20% of the female US workforce), dealing with perimenopause and menopause in the workplace can be a stressful, isolating, and at times, humiliating experience.
According to a recent study of 4,400 women who have received treatment from the Mayo Clinic, 13% experienced an adverse work outcome related to menopause symptoms and 11% said they were missing days of work because of these symptoms. A 2022 survey by Carrot Fertility of 1,000 perimenopausal and menopausal women in the US (aged 40-55) found that a staggering 54% have encountered at least one menopause-driven work challenge, including loss of work time and job security concerns. Among the nearly 40% of respondents who took time off due to perimenopause or menopause symptoms, 59% felt they needed to conceal the reason for the time away. Their fears included perceived losses to credibility in the workplace, worries over job loss due to menopause stigma, and lost work friendships.
In the U.S., nearly 1.3 million of us go into menopause every year. If companies want to keep us, they better wise up. Talented and experienced employees, managers, and CEOs are suffering from a lack of understanding and resources to succeed in the workplace during their times of hormonal change.
We spoke with Mariella Frostrup, broadcaster, author, menopause activist, and Stripes Advisory Board member, about what really needs to change in order for women in the workplace to thrive during menopause and keep our earning power.
Q: In your book Cracking the Menopause, you talk about the “third shift.” Can you explain what that is?We all know that women do two shifts–one is the domestic realm and the other is our professional careers. And then when we get to menopause, suddenly there's this third shift, which is coping with unexpected and potentially debilitating perimenopausal symptoms. In the UK, one in 10 women leave the workplace directly because of menopause, because they're unsupported and they don't feel that they can carry on and function. It’s an awful lot to deal with. You start to question your sanity and your ability as a professional.
Q: What does support for women in the workplace during menopause look like to you?First and foremost, support is needed for all stages of our lives, whether it's period pain, issues around pregnancy, or one’s menopausal transition. Support means you can be open with your colleagues of all genders and say, “I can get this done. I just need flexible working.” And knowing that everyone knows that you can still do your job brilliantly! Maybe 8am-5pm isn’t going to capture your talents at their best. It just means that your timings might be slightly different than what’s been decreed by the patriarchy for millennia.
Workplace support can also mean a dedicated cool place for us to take a breath during a hot flash, the ability to work from home when needed, and the ability to communicate honestly and without worry. It sounds so banal when you lay it out, but what's shocking is that none of these things have ever been considered. Women and their needs have never been considered in terms of our health and physiology. It's all just common sense and basic human dignity.
Q: What can happen in a workplace that supports women in menopause?I've found that once a person enters a truly menopause friendly workplace, the weight they’ve been carrying, this feeling of shameful inadequacy, is lifted. Suddenly women are back to performing at their peak. None of us want to be seen as a sort of victim as though we’re frail and incompetent. We’re at the point in our careers when we’re the most skilled, the most professional.
And I think that employers are finally waking up to the fact that if they want to stop shedding some of the employees that they've invested so much time, effort, and money into, then they need get their acts together and support us, not just in through our menopausal transition, but our entire working lives.
Q: If we want to change the state of menopause in our own workplaces, how can we advocate for ourselves?For me, I think that everything is made easier by a community. If you are someone who suffers from very difficult periods or if you're going through a difficult pregnancy or dealing with menopause symptoms, if you're not loud, strident, and unashamed, then your struggle is 300% worse. It’s imperative that we create communities that wrap around us. We need to find a sisterhood, women of our own experience, age, and who you suspect might be going through difficulty too. Men can be and should be part of our workplace community! Many want to help and have empathy but don’t know what’s happening to us or how to help.
Q: Finally, what advice would you give someone who fears that she will be discriminated against and seen as less of a professional if she asks for support?
I don't think understanding ever leads to more discrimination. It's shame, secrecy and a lack of empathy are often the biggest contributors to these fears. The important thing for us to realize what’s happening to us is very much part of our natural fertility life cycle and the fact that workplaces should never be allowed to think that we are vulnerable or weak or incapable. Once we come to terms with what’s happening and we find a community of people at work, men and women and others, and get that support, we become so much better at our jobs. We’re not looking for special treatment.
So many of us beat ourselves up about appearing vulnerable. For me, now that I’m post-menopausal, I can see how it’s been a sort of an adventure, a kind of rollercoaster ride out of which I think I've emerged in so many ways more positive, better at what I do, with more to contribute and a lot of joy.