Article Written by: Connie Buck, MS, OTR/L
NBA great LeBron James is credited as saying “The best teacher in life is experience”. Experience is very often seen as a primary indicator for success and is rewarded in numerous ways throughout our lives. An airline pilot is required to have hundreds of hours in the cockpit before they are allowed to fly alone; a doctor spends years in residency prior to being allowed a license to open a private practice. Even the traditional pay schedule for nearly every employment opportunity is based off two things: education and experience. There is little doubt or discussion regarding the invaluable benefit of experience in all aspects of life. Therefore, there should be no question that the experience of professional women in the workforce is the cornerstone for many thriving businesses throughout the world.
The United States Department of Labor reports that nearly 37 million women over the age of 45 are actively employed as of the 2020 census. (www.dol.gov) The education, knowledge, and life experiences that these women offer their employers are rarely questioned; they are described as knowledgeable and professional leaders in their respective industries. They are team leaders, surgeons, creators, and investors. What happens when you add “menopausal” to the list of attributes used to describe women over the age of 45? It hardly elicits the same powerful, positive leadership traits that immediately spring to mind when an experienced executive woman is mentioned.
Menopause is defined by Mayo Clinic as a “natural biological process caused by declining reproductive hormones”. During this stage of life, estrogen and testosterone fluctuate at unpredictable levels until stabilizing at a level much lower than prior. The average age that women enter menopause in the United States is 51, although it can naturally occur at any time in her 40s or 50s. Symptoms typically experienced during this transition period can include: sleep problems, mood changes, hot flashes, chills, decreased energy, weight gain, and mental fatigue among others. Women can experience a disruption in their well-oiled professional routine because of any, or all, of these symptoms. Mental and emotional stress can stem from attempting to balance traditional life roles with the onset of menopause and its impact on a woman’s ability to function throughout their home and work environments.
These factors can compound and lead to a difficult working environment: employers may be disappointed by a perceived decrease in productivity or dependability of their employee due to her new onset of sleep problems or mental fatigue, colleagues may report strained relationships due to mood changes or irritability, and women themselves may struggle to navigate this new life with its professional and interpersonal hardship. These feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt may lead to mental and emotional stress that in turn impact productivity. And thus, an unhealthy cycle has begun…
While the difficulties associated with menopause may fluctuate between inconvenient and crippling depending on the woman, the severity of symptoms, and even the day, it is not currently recognized as a disability or offered workplace protections by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA 1990, www.dol.gov). To many people, this may not seem alarming, but to those women over the age of 45, it can signal the onset of an internal shift or realignment in their workplace status. This potential realignment is seen in statistics reported in an article from AARP where they state that in 2020, 37% of healthcare workers were aged 50+ and that number drops to just 15% after the age of 60. While there are no evidence-based research studies on the effect of menopause on the employment or employability of women, there are countless numbers of personal stories where women report being moved off larger contracts or being reassigned within their departments as they age. (www.aarp.org)
As mentioned previously, while there are currently no legal protections for menopausal employees under ADA’s “reasonable accommodation” framework, but there are several steps that employers, coworkers, and women experiencing any of the previously listed symptoms can take to promote a successful transition through menopause while maintaining a productive career, positive interpersonal relationships, and a healthy mindset.
As an employer, the most important thing that you can offer an employee struggling with menopause is understanding. Women over the age of 50 have typically gained a wealth of knowledge throughout their years of experience and are used to being in control of themselves and their careers. Due to this independence and autonomy, they may be hesitant to discuss the symptoms that are causing difficulties to arise in the workplace, but their experience and contribution the organization make it more than worth the time it takes to offer understanding and accommodation for them during this period of transition in their lives. Some accommodations from which women may benefit include flexible work hours due to sleep difficulties, alternative or increased opportunities for short breaks due to “hot flashes” and occasionally the need for extended time to complete projects or flexibility with deadlines due to mental and physical fatigue. Allowing open communication without fear of reprimand is essential to fostering an emotionally healthy workplace. These strategies can benefit all workers, not just women experiencing menopause. An emotionally strong work environment nearly always leads to a productive work environment.
If you are a woman navigating the uncertain waters of menopause while trying to maintain a high level of productivity at work, there are several strategies that you can take to ensure this transition is as seamless as possible. First and most importantly, prioritize your physical and mental health; make an appointment with your provider to discuss the symptoms you are experiencing because of the decreasing hormones that define menopause. Discussing physical symptoms and their management is the first step, but don’t overlook the emotional toll that menopause takes and discuss this as well. Remember that fueling your body with healthy meals and snacks while prioritizing an active lifestyle can be just as beneficial as pharmaceuticals when it comes to managing the symptoms and side effects of menopause.
Possibly the most important thing you can do for yourself is, to be honest and forgiving about your limitations. As women, we tend to push our needs aside and persevere as though everything is normal. This strategy is detrimental on many levels, especially when you need your employer to understand and support you through this transition period. Advocating for yourself can be hard, but it is so incredibly important as we push to normalize women’s health issues and help prepare the workforce to support menopausal women. Having a frank and honest discussion with your employer about this medical condition can pave the way for a better working environment, not only for you but for hundreds, potentially thousands, of other women who stand to benefit from the normalizing of menopause in the workforce
Following these simple guidelines and strategies can not only help support women in the workforce who are experiencing symptoms of menopause, but it can also support and improve all working relationships by fostering a culture of understanding and accommodation throughout our professional experiences. Open communication between employers, colleagues, and employees is a sure way to maintain a healthy and productive work environment while protecting a company’s most valuable asset- an experienced professional woman.
US Department of Labor: