Menopause and the Workplace

Menopause is part of a broader landscape of health and well-being issues surrounding older employees. The health and well-being of older workers is recognised as fundamental to motivated and quality participation in the workforce (Verikios, 2013). In a recent report commissioned by the Diversity Council Australia (DCA) and the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) entitled Older Women Matter: Harnessing the Talents of Australia’s Older Female Workforce, the authors call for attention to be paid to the specific experiences of older women in employment. This makes a case for and provides an organisational framework that proposes to increase workforce contributions and improve working conditions for older women (aged 45+).

Organisations are increasingly showing concern for the health and well-being of employees, with many allocating large budgets for programmes to encourage longevity and retention at work. However, specific and comprehensive knowledge that can guide employers on how best to support the menopausal experience is lacking (Payne & Doyal, 2010). Additionally, it has been noted that Human Resources Managers are underprepared, even unskilled, in supporting mature women (Armstrong-Sassen, 2008). Women, Work and the Menopause introduces findings to enable the development of relevant advice and support for organisational and policy stakeholders in the Australian context.

Menopausal transition is an important aspect in considering older women’s occupational health, but is typically a silent issue in organisational contexts – part of a broader cultural suppression of women’s embodied experiences (Ussher, 2006). Research shows a need to understand in greater depth how working women actually experience and negotiate menopause as a distinctive bodily transition (Everingham et al., 2007). This may form part of a broader horizon of ‘gendered ageism’ in workplaces where cultural stereotypes surrounding older women either render them invisible within organisations, or hyper-visible and problematic as ‘cranky old women’ (Irni, 2009).

Despite the large and ever-increasing workforce contribution of older women, they are often subject to marginalisation or are overlooked at the organisational level (Colley, 2014; Duncan and Loretto, 2004). Employers are less likely to invest in their older female workers (e.g., through the provision of training) as there is often an expectation of imminent retirement that does not justify the investment (Encel, 2000). As a group, older workers are considered to be more expensive than younger workers (with higher compensation) and they are seen as less productive (Ghosheh et al., 2006). They are also considered to be vulnerable in light of perceived age-related declines in physical health (Payne & Doyal, 2010) and there is evidence to suggest that poor working conditions exacerbate these declines (Ilmarinen, 2005).

Very little research has been conducted around how work affects or is affected by menstrual status or the experience of menopausal symptoms.  Research from the US and the UK suggests there may be a negative link between menopausal symptoms and labour participation (Griffiths et al., 2013; Sarrel, 2012). For example, Griffiths et al. (2013) reported that among a sample of peri- and post-menopausal women, 40% felt that their performance at work was affected due to menopause symptoms. The symptoms viewed as most problematic included: trouble concentrating, tiredness, poor memory, depression, low confidence and sleep disturbance.  However there are methodological shortcomings in the few existing studies of menopause at work, notably the tendency to operationalise work through a single questionnaire item (Geuyes et al., 2012) and the predominant use of descriptive and bivariate statistical tests. Moreover, the purely numerical picture painted by such statistical reporting is limited in its capacity to offer more in-depth insights into the complexities and contradictions that may be characteristic of women’s experience of menopause in workplace settings. Women, Work and the Menopause aims to give space to women to talk about their experiences beyond the numbers, in their own words.

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