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ILLUSTRATION BY MAIA GRECCO

While it’s as normal a stage of life as puberty and pregnancy, many women are reluctant to discuss menopause, especially at work.

Why? According to Dr. Jen Gunter, a Canadian-trained OB/GYN and author of The Menopause Manifesto: Own Your Health with Facts and Feminism, part of the problem is lack of knowledge. Menopause can cause challenging symptoms that negatively affect well-being and productivity at work, but because it’s perceived as a taboo topic, asking for support may seem impossible.

“While most people understand menopause exists, a lot of people know almost nothing beyond that. It’s shrouded in secrecy. That lack of discussion makes it difficult to even start a conversation,” says Dr. Gunter, who will speak about menopause on Monday, Nov. 22 as part of a Rotman School of Management event.

“Then there’s the additional layer that [menopause] is seen as a marker of irrelevance – it’s almost like there’s a shame about it,” she adds.

Suffering in silence

According to Mount Sinai Hospital’s Menopause Clinic, the average age of menopause in Canada is 51.5 years, and over 90 per cent of women are menopausal by age 55-56. (Technically, menopause refers to the point when periods stop completely; the lead-up, which can last four to eight years, is known as perimenopause.)

During this life transition, roughly 80 per cent of women will experience symptoms that can potentially pose challenges at work: hot flashes, unpredictable heavy periods, sleep disruptions, mood swings and even depression. All this at an age when a woman’s career is likely at its peak, and she may also be juggling responsibilities such as parenting teens or helping aging parents.

Women often suffer in silence when it comes to menopause in the workplace. In a 2021 survey by market research agency Opinium of over 5000 people in five countries, 66 per cent of people who experienced menopause said it affected them on the job, and 44 per cent said they’d feel too embarrassed to ask for support at work.

What workplaces should be doing

While she’s quick to emphasize she’s not a workplace expert, Dr. Gunter believes there are a few simple things employers could be doing to create a more welcoming workplace for employees during this process. An educational seminar outlining the facts about menopause would go a long way, she says.

“There’s certainly an opportunity to spread quality, basic information, such as what’s happening during menopause, what symptoms are within a normal spectrum, and [that] if they’re bothersome enough that it’s affecting your activities of daily living, to see a physician.”

Simply knowing that the upheaval is usually temporary can be enormously reassuring, says Dr. Gunter. Workplace sessions on related topics, such as sleep hygiene, “would be good for all workers,” she adds.

Secondly, employers should “make accommodations so those typical symptoms don’t become cumbersome, and so you can do your job in a way that works for you,” Dr. Gunter says. What those accommodations might look like depends on your job and work environment.

“For example, as a surgeon, there’s not a lot I can do when I’m having a hot flash – I can’t just put the scalpel down,” she notes. “However, there are cooling suits that surgeons can wear.” Other possible strategies include providing desk fans, offering flex-time or a different work-space.

A menopause-specific HR policy can also “simply open the conversation – [it’s] saying that this is a safe space for you,” Dr. Gunter says.

“I think the biggest thing that a workplace can do is to make it okay to say, ‘I need extra time for this,’ or ‘I need to be at home because of what’s going on.’”

Ask Women and Work

Have a question about your work life? E-mail us at GWC@globeandmail.com.

Question: My workplace doesn’t have any concrete diversity and inclusion programs or policies, or at least none that have been communicated to staff. I would like to take the initiative and start up an employee group championing diversity and inclusion for staff of colour and allies. I hope to eventually work with management so they hear our concerns and suggestions in this area. How should I go about this? Do I need to inform management first? I’m not sure how receptive they will be.

We asked Meryl Afrika, chair of the Canadian Association of Urban Financial Professionals and board member at Pitch Better to field this one:

First off, congratulations on being a changemaker and taking the first step toward creating an inclusive workplace! Creating these spaces can be a challenging task, so my first piece of advice would be to engage your direct people manager to see if they would be willing to support you as you engage stakeholders across the enterprise.

My next step would be to set up a call with the head of HR or whomever leads people- and culture-related initiatives and gauge their interest in creating an employee resource group. I would suggest including facts about how employee resource groups are beneficial and give examples of this. The purpose of your meeting with HR should be to get their buy-in and to see if they would be willing to send out an employee survey to help you determine interest amongst employees.

Once you have evidence that shows interest from employees, then you will need to decide if you want to make one large mosaic group that represents all staff of colour or separate employee resource groups based on race. This can be determined by the size of your company and the number of employees of colour. You will then need to define your group’s purpose or mission and recruit volunteers to help you.

Your next step would be to a find an executive sponsor for your employee resource group. This will be a senior person, ideally at the VP level or above, who can advocate for your group at the executive leadership table and help you attain a small budget to support events. Once you have all of these in place, you can begin planning your first event and work with HR on a communication plan to market this across the enterprise.

Interested in more perspectives about women in the workplace? Find all stories on the hub here, and subscribe to the new Women and Work newsletter here. Have feedback on the series? E-mail us at GWC@globeandmail.com.

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