Friday, 23 Feb 2024

A Movement to Make Workplaces ‘Menopause Friendly’

In the last few years, managers at Nvidia, the global computer graphics company, began hearing a new kind of complaint: Some of their female employees were struggling with hot flashes, fatigue and brain fog — common symptoms of the menopause transition — and their regular doctors weren’t offering guidance or relief.

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“They came to us and said, ‘Who do I go to?’” Denise Rosa, the company’s head of U.S. medical programs, said. “They were like, ‘We have fertility support, we have egg freezing, we have surrogacy and adoption. What about me?’”

Some women’s health concerns, like fertility struggles and postpartum depression, have already been acknowledged as issues that employers can address. But until recently, discussing the symptoms of menopause and perimenopause, the yearslong stretch that precedes the end of a woman’s reproductive years, was largely taboo.

That is beginning to change. A new movement to create “menopause-friendly workplaces” is catching on, beginning in Britain, where menopausal women are believed to be the fastest growing work force demographic.

More than 50 British organizations, including HSBC UK, Unilever UK, and the soccer club West Ham United, are now are certified as “menopause-friendly” though an accreditation developed by Henpicked: Menopause in the Workplace, a British professional training firm. One recent poll estimated that three in 10 workplaces in Britain now have some kind of menopause policy in place. There is even an awards ceremony, held in London, for the most menopause-friendly companies.

The British Parliament, which held multiple hearings on menopause in the workplace over the last two years, is calling for such policies — which include training about symptoms, physical accommodations like desk fans and modified uniforms, and more flexible schedules — to be even more widespread.

Now, the effort is arriving in the United States. New York City Mayor Eric Adams promised earlier this year “to change the stigma around menopause in this city,” and to “create more menopause-friendly workplaces for our city workers through improving policies and our buildings.”

There are many reasons for the shift.

Female leaders and celebrities — including Oprah and Michelle Obama — are increasingly bringing what Oprah calls “the Big M” into the cultural conversation. Gen X-ers, now in their 40s and 50s, are more willing to talk about their menopause experiences and request support than previous generations.

A growing number of “fem-tech” companies and other entrepreneurs focused on women’s health are seeking profit opportunities in everything from prescribing hormones to selling menopause-themed energy bars.

And employers are realizing that offering help is a way to retain experienced women in the work force, as more evidence shows that menopause symptoms are hurting productivity and causing women to leave or consider leaving their jobs.

A recent British study, for example, found that one-third of women ages 50 to 64 reported moderate to severe difficulties coping at work because of menopausal symptoms. A 2021 survey by the Mayo Clinic estimated that about 10 percent of women ages 45 to 60 had taken time off in the last year in the United States because of menopause symptoms, costing employers about $1.8 billion.

The first step to a menopause-friendly workplace is to provide education to reduce the stigma, said Deborah Garlick, the founder of Henpicked. This can mean posting information on company websites and training employees and managers, regardless of gender.

Many people, for example, don’t know that symptoms of perimenopause can start as early as a woman’s 30s, and that even minor adjustments, like allowing an employee to take a short break when symptoms flare, can help.

It also helps to appoint “menopause champions” — employees willing to talk about menopause and help women find support, she said; the higher they are in the company’s ranks, the better. “When an organization demonstrates through its senior leaders that this is something important and they take it seriously, that gives everybody permission to talk about it,” she said.

Workplaces can also provide employees with access to treatment. Some are beginning to contract with companies that offer virtual appointments with providers trained in menopause care, such as Maven, Midday, and Peppy Health, a British company that recently opened an office in Brooklyn.

In Britain, some workplaces are offering women desk fans. Uniforms can be modified to breathe better. Women having a particularly bad time can ask to change shifts or work from home until they get their symptoms under control. A checklist offers other ideas.

“The employers that do best are the ones that ask their colleagues, ‘What’s getting in the way of you being at your best at work and what can we do to help?’” Ms. Garlick said. “The reasonable adjustments are usually small things and over a small period of time.”

There are an estimated 34 symptoms of the menopause transition, and often, symptoms hit just as women are rising to higher levels at work, adding an additional challenge to the hurdles of ageism and sexism already present in many workplaces.

In part because of the lack of education about menopause, many women don’t even know that what’s bothering them is related to hormonal change.

Wendy Sachs, a 52-year-old filmmaker and producer in New York, recalled how several years ago, while working on a television series, she would lose her train of thought. “I had this fog over me all the time, and I honestly thought ‘I’m having early dementia,’” she said.

She didn’t think to mention it to her colleagues, many of whom were men. It was a long time before she finally found a specialist in women’s health — whom she paid $1,400 out of pocket to see — who prescribed hormone replacement therapy. An acupuncturist also recommended vitamins. “And I truly feel like the fog has lifted,” she said.

Ms. Sachs was one of about 80 women attending a screening in late April of a new documentary about Judy Blume — the author whose 1970 novel “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” broke barriers with its frank discussion of menstruation — followed by a panel called “Menopause Needs Our Margaret.” Held at a women’s networking club in New York City, the event featured women who are making menopause advocacy their cause, including Stacy London, the stylist and television personality, and Tamsen Fadal, a local news anchor.

Ms. Garlick said that things in Britain in 2016 were much the same as they are in New York today, with women generally reluctant to draw attention to their age and menopause status.

“I would have people saying, ‘I don’t know why we are talking about this,’” she said, recalling particular resistance from women who had risen through the ranks in male-dominated fields like police forces. “They were worried about how they would be perceived.”

During his remarks in January, Mr. Adams recalled how his mother’s insomnia during menopause made it difficult for her do her job as a line cook. He pledged reform.

But some experts warn that disclosing menopause symptoms also carries risk, because it could play into assumptions that women are less productive at work as they age. As a result, it may be better to start slow, folding menopause assistance into existing workplace resources, than introduce something totally new, like a cool room, said Dr. Stephanie Faubion, medical director of the North American Menopause Society.

“The last thing we need is some other reason for workplace discrimination against women and to handicap them in some way by saying there’s something wrong with them at menopause that requires accommodation,” she said.

Nvidia, which has about 13,000 employees in the United States, began offering access to Peppy Health to those employees and their partners this year, after about a dozen women had asked for help finding symptom relief. The service, which provides virtual medical care via an app, was already a benefit in Nvidia’s British offices, Ms. Rosa said.

Bristol Myers Squibb, the New York-based global pharmaceutical company, is in the early stages of setting up menopause support for its U.S.-based employees. Its British subsidiary, which allows employees to develop tailored symptom-management plans, was named Menopause Friendly Employer of the Year in 2022.

Carla Daily, global lead for the Bristol Myers Squibb Network of Women, said the company’s first step would be setting up a hub for menopause information on its intranet. It eventually plans to give U.S. employees the same opportunities as their British counterparts.

“If I was going through menopause in the U.K., I could have this honest conversation with my manager about what I need in the event of a flare-up or in the event that I need to take a moment for myself,” she said. “We don’t have that in the U.S.”

Audio produced by Tally Abecassis.

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