Small adjustments can make all the difference. HR can increase retention and reduce absenteeism of its female staff by following these simple steps.
Imagine you’re standing in your boardroom preparing to deliver an important presentation. The heavyweights of your organisation have cleared their schedules to be there. You’ve spent weeks preparing. It’s a big deal.
Just as you’re about to dive into your presentation you’re overcome with a sense of mental fogginess. Your skin starts to itch. You feel nauseous. Suddenly you’re overcome with an overwhelming sense of heat as if your feet were buried beneath the coals of a fire. No, it’s not nerves. It’s menopause.
Menopause is one of the many physical changes women have to deal with throughout their lifetime. Menstruation, pregnancy, endometriosis and polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) are just a few others. These conditions can be difficult to manage at home and dealing with them while at work adds another complicated layer to the situation.
It’s common for female employees to take time off work in order to manage various symptoms of health issues, such as cramping, nausea, lack of sleep or morning sickness. With various reports placing the associated costs of employee absenteeism between $300-360 per employee per day, it’s clear that women’s health issues need to be on HR’s agenda.
Help menopausal women to stay at work
Around 2 million women in Australia are currently experiencing menopause in the workplace and while there’s no hard and fast timeline for the duration of a menopausal period, it’s thought to last for around four years.
After surveying 2,000 Australian women over five years, professor Kat Riach has been able to illuminate some interesting research about menopause in the workplace.
Some of the greatest challenges for menopausal women identified in the report were: increased stress levels, embarrassment about visible symptoms, sexist/ageist cultures, managing shift work, and an inability to take regular, discrete breaks to seek remedy.
Along with other Monash University academics, professor Riach developed a free online resource for employers who wanted to better understand how to support this portion of their workforce.
Some of the minor adjustments they recommend include:
- Workspaces may be relocated to a space where temperatures can be locally controlled
- Provide easier access to cold drinking water, and permanent access to washroom facilities (with available sanitary products)
- Flexible working options
- Uniform alterations to ensure employees can wear breathable fabrics
- Staggering lunch breaks hour over two half-hour breaks to alleviate muscular pains
- Alternative distribution or reallocation of tasks within work teams to accommodate anxiety
- An OHS representative present in review meetings to help facilitate discussions of changes to working environment
- Provide a quiet space to work, or noise-cancelling headphones
- Agreed protected time to get up to date with work
- Agreed time away from work for meditation or relaxation activities
In her research, professor Riach found that between 40 and 75 per cent of women felt their menopause affected their productivity levels, and noted that menopause was a reason many women exited the workforce or moved to part-time employment.
Employers don’t have to work hard to retain this talent – the dot points above illustrate that – and professor Riach says there can be immense benefits to keeping them on board.
“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,” she told the ABC.
Her report also outlined the potential knock-on effects that progressive menopause policies could have on overall gender equality in the workplace.
“Enabling women to stay in the workforce despite menopausal symptoms is key to gender equality, with EU figures suggesting that improving gender equality overall can significantly increase GDP per capita from 6.1% to 9.6%, which amounts to a difference of €1.2 trillion,” reads the resource paper.
In many instances, employers have a legal responsibility to make adjustments to a work environment under the Equality Act, as well as from a workplace health and safety perspective.
“While menopause itself is not a ‘protected characteristic’, it is unclear whether ongoing significant symptoms that last for more than 12 months may be considered under disability provision,” reads the resource paper.
Menstruation and workplace policies
Research from the Western Sydney University found that 40 per cent of women took time off to manage period symptoms in a tracked three month period in 2018.
But just because menstruation affects workplaces, that doesn’t mean every policy is smart. Here’s an example of what not to do: one company in Norway asked female staff to wear red bracelets when menstruating, as a way of notifying managers of why they might be taking more bathroom breaks than usual. Putting aside the absurdity of this for a moment (if you can), a policy like this only perpetuates harmful stereotypes about women who are menstruating.
As with menopause, sometimes all it takes to help employees are small adjustments.
In an article for Lunette, a female police officer said she’d only ever have conversations about periods with officers of the same rank as her, as a junior officer “could be horrified at this “overshare” from their boss”.
“I would only tell a senior officer if I was basically dying in front of them and they needed to know,” she said.
She says managing her period at work is much easier now that she’s a plain clothed officer. When she used to wear a uniform and hard body armour it would cause her a lot of pain when she was on her period because her breasts would be really sensitive.
“Wearing the bullet/stab-proof vest was torture,” she says.
Another woman, who uses a menstrual cup, recalled receiving disappointed glares as she’d leave the disabled toilets – the only space where she could remove and clean her menstrual cup discreetly – which was clearly marked ‘reserved for people with disabilities only’.
Acknowledging that people have different needs, and creating a space for them could ease a lot of stress for all employees. For some organisations that might mean offering free tampons and sanitary pads in staff bathrooms in order to normalise periods at work – as well as helping those who might be caught off guard.
It’s not just physical side effects that managers should consider either.
“I get awful emotional premenstrual stress (PMS)rather than physical symptoms,” said another woman in the Lunette article.
“What I’d really be up for is having the option to take one unplanned WFH (working from home day) a month on top of other flexible working. I work part time in a fixed-flexible set up which is generally good but that I feel would make a difference for a lot of women.”
HRM has previously done a deep dive into menstrual leave policies looking into the arguments for and against menstrual leave with mixed results.
One of our HRM commenters thinks it’s a “great idea! All companies should be forced to offer this”. Another had the opposite view.
“As a Diversity Consultant I can honestly say that organisations providing an entitlement for menstrual leave will only cause separation and exclusion of women in the workplace… If menstrual leave becomes a provision, we will marginalise women and set the gender equity cause back decades. Not to mention the added financial strain on business to manage the entitlement.”
Have the conversation
The provisions suggested above can be applied to other women’s health issues too, such as endometriosis, which affects over 700,000 Australian women.
In September last year, Minister for Health Greg Hunt announced that Safe Work Australia would invest in developing “workplace-specific materials to educate employers on the prevalence and impact of endometriosis”.
Within the announcement, Kelly O’Dwyer Minister for Jobs and Industrial Relations and Minister for Women said it’s estimated that women with endometriosis can lose up to 11 hours per week of workplace productivity.
“These employees should feel understood, supported and comfortable to discuss their common chronic condition with their employer, and seek the support they need in order to embark upon or continue a productive and rewarding career,” says O’Dwyer.
It all comes down to having the conversation and asking simple questions such as: “what do you need?” and “how can we help?”. The shame or embarrassment cloaking these conversations is starting to lift and HR has an important role to play in that.
(The Monash researchers have developed a guide for managers and supervisors to have effective and respectful conversations about menopause in the workplace. View it here).
What policies does your organisation have in place to support women’s health issues?
Want to learn more about retaining great female talent? AHRI’s short course ‘Attracting and retaining talent’ takes you through some great ways to engage and maintain the best talent for your workplace.