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‘We are a menopause friendly workplace’: Should bosses help with hot flushes?

Email Why employers are being asked to create 'menopause friendly' workplaces By the Specialist Reporting Team's Alison Branley

Posted April 09, 2019 04:47:51

Sonja Montage Mackay smiles. Photo: Sonja Montague Mackay wants workplaces to make it easier for women to keep working during menopause. (ABC News: Peter Drought) Related Story: Perimenopause: The change that happens before 'the change' Related Story: The silent career killer for women Map: Australia

Sonja Montague Mackay was standing in front of a classroom full of students about to start a lesson when it happened.

Key points:

  • Monash University has developed a resource for bosses who want to help their female staff during menopause
  • One idea includes allowing women experiencing menopause to have flexible work arrangements, like they might during pregnancy
  • Advocates say employers should "embrace having mature women in work"

"It was like someone lit a match at my feet," she said.

"I could feel this wildfire spread through my body.

"I shed all the layers I could, but I was still sweating profusely and then it passed."

At the age of 46, Ms Montague Mackay was having a hot flush — one of the first signs she was about to enter menopause.

While many people know hot flushes can signify menopause, it's less well-known that there are 34 different symptoms women can experience in the years before and after their periods stop.

For some, the symptoms are mild, but for others it can be a maze of night sweats, itching skin, leg cramps, needing to urinate, nausea, abdominal pain, acne, brain fog, fatigue, depression and anxiety.

Ms Montague Mackay has decided to speak publicly about her experience to help break the stigma and taboos around the phase.

"I knew very little about menopause before," she said.

"My mother never really spoke about it, my grandmother certainly never discussed it."

For Ms Montague Mackay, the most surprising element of entering peri-menopause — the phase before menstruation finishes — has been the mental symptoms like anxiety and depression.

"I basically had to cancel my diary for an entire week because I just couldn't stand being in front of people," she said.

"Also the brain fog, lack of concentration, poor memory.

"I've also had a lot of headaches, leg cramps, which I'd never associated with this."

Experiences like Ms Montague Mackay's are at the heart of a growing push to have employers help female employees negotiate this time of their life, just as they might during pregnancy.

Academics have come up with practical things workplaces can provide to help.

Suggestions include:

  • Making desk fans available
  • Breathable and layered uniforms
  • Regular breaks
  • Quiet rooms
  • Adjustable thermostats
  • Access to cold water
  • Flexible working policies

The ideas are detailed in a new Monash University resource to help more workplaces become menopause friendly.

Professor Kat Riach said it made economic sense, with some studies suggesting between 40 and 75 per cent of women said they felt menopause affected their productivity.

While some women can control their symptoms with hormonal medications, for others that is not always an option.

Bosses 'should embrace having more mature women in work'

Academics at the Monash Business School estimated there were 1.3 million Australian women between the ages of 45 and 55 who worked in the health and education sectors alone and one in four were likely to experience significant menopausal symptoms.

"That's a significant number of women experiencing menopause in the workplace," Professor Riach said.

A sign reads: "We are a menopause friendly workplace." Photo: A sign reads: "We are a menopause friendly workplace." (ABC News: Alison Branley)

Her team spoke to more than 2,000 older women over five years about their experiences of menopause at work.

"What we really found is a lot of the mechanisms that supported women already existed in organisations," Professor Riach said.

"It was just making sure that managers were aware that flexible working may be beneficial to menopausal women as opposed to parents or people with caring responsibilities."

Advocates said the symptoms of menopause should not deter potential employers, with women in the demographic proving to be highly effective employees.

"This is a real cohort of women who are ready to go in terms of their work," Professor Riach said.

"It's not simply that you're counting down to retirement. A lot of them are coming out of that caring responsibility and do have renewed vigour for their careers."

Professor Riach said such women also came to the workplace with added skills and resilience, but sometimes left jobs because they were not being supported properly or were being overlooked.

"Organisations aren't actually looking to them to be in that next pool of talent," she said.

Ms Montague Mackay has successfully spent her time in early menopause setting up her own small business after years in the government sector.

She said women in her age group had a great deal to offer.

Sonja Montague Mackay leads her breathwork class. Photo: Sonja Montague Mackay leads her breathwork class, a business she started during the early stages of menopause. (ABC News: Peter Drought)

"They come with a wealth of experience, and a wealth of talent, and a wealth of knowledge," Ms Montague Mackay said.

"Employers should embrace having more mature women in work."

Professor Riach said her team had already seen a "swathe of interest" from large companies about the resource.

Dealing with IVF, child loss while building a legal career

Ms Montague Mackay spoke about her experiences at a special forum on women's health at work in Melbourne.

It was organised by Naomi Seddon — a partner in global employment firm Littler.

She organised the event after going through endometriosis, IVF, child loss and surrogacy all while building her legal career.

Women in the workplace. Did you know?

  • Women over 45 make up 17 per cent of the Australian workforce
  • Main menopause symptoms include sleep disturbance, headaches, weakness or fatigue, loss of sexual desire, anxiety, memory loss, pain in bone joints, and hot flushes
  • Those surveyed said the worse their symptoms were, the less they felt engaged at work and more likely to quit
  • Only 30 per cent of women surveyed could control the temperature in their workplace
  • Estimates suggested increasing participation among ageing women will raise GDP growth by 1.5 per cent

(Source: Monash)

"I didn't talk about it and I think in my doing that I did a disservice to other women. Not everybody has the same ability to push through that I did," she said.

"Traditionally they have been issues that women have kept very private."

Within one day of posting the event she had more than 20,000 hits and requests from women across the globe to hold similar events in their city.

"I've never seen anything before that really focused on real life issues that impact all women. Things like menopause, fertility issues, child loss," she said.

"Stuff that's just never discussed in the workplace context, but that impacts so many of us at work."

Ms Seddon has represented US clients which have started offering to cover the cost of their employees' IVF, nannies and even transgender reassignment surgery.

"It's not just because they want to keep them, I think employers are recognising that wellness is directly related to productivity," she said.

"Companies around the world are starting to recognise that the market for talent in certain areas is just getting tougher and they need to stay competitive.

"I really believe as women leaders we also have a really important role to play in all of this."

Topics: womens-health, health, community-and-society, work, australia

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