"In the past, I mainly coached male business leaders," Sandra explains, "but nowadays I coach more women. Many of them were suddenly experiencing a lack of energy and doubts about their jobs, relationships, etc. It turned out that they were all menopausal, so I decided to look into it further."
Sandra found data in a British study that showed 60% of menopausal women struggle at work.
The percentage in a similar study by Securex was 55%. The latter also revealed that 87% experienced symptoms at some point. "That’s very worrying when you know that women account for 50% of the workforce," Sandra adds.
What is the menopause?
A woman reaches the menopause when she has not had a period for exactly one year. This means she is no longer fertile. The time leading up to that point, when the body transitions from fertility to infertility, is called the perimenopause
and can last for many years.
During perimenopause, the body produces less and less female hormones (oestrogen and progesterone). These hormone fluctuations are often accompanied by physical symptoms, which can vary greatly in severity from one woman to another.
How can menopause symptoms affect your professional life?
Christel: "Fatigue, poor sleep, less energy and difficulty concentrating, irritability, the feeling that you can no longer cope with the pace at work, etc. These are typical complaints, but in the workplace women rarely associate them with the menopause. And they are not alone, even GPs don't immediately think of the menopause when they are confronted with this pattern."
Sandra: "Some women are misdiagnosed with a burnout or depression. A minority also fear that their symptoms - especially the brain fog - are an indication of Alzheimer's. This is usually not the case, as it is one of the most common symptoms of the perimenopause."
"There is still insufficient attention devoted to the menopause and perimenopause, which are also underestimated, and can lead to burnout over time precisely because of this. After all, at that age, you have more responsibility at work, and the bar is set even higher than before. You keep going, forgetting that you are not the same person you were 20-30 years ago - no matter how much you want to be. And you naturally end up exhausted as a result."
How do employees deal with the taboo surrounding the perimenopause/menopause?
Sandra: "Lots of women tell me that they are genuinely happy with the recent focus on the issue, including the opinion piece by politician Gwendolyn Rutten. But there is also caution because not every woman experiences menopause symptoms to the same extent. This means some are also concerned: 'we have to be careful not to exclude ourselves from the market'."
"Men are open to making the menopause a topic for discussion, but they simply don't know how.
It remains a sensitive subject, and they sometimes unnecessarily link it to sexuality and intimacy."
Christel: "Women are often afraid to talk about it, especially if there is no clear diagnosis. And if there is, they come up against the taboo: talking about the menopause is still difficult or impossible in the workplace."
Some employers do have a menopause policy in place. What do you think about that?
Christel: "I don't think there should be a separate menopause policy, because otherwise you really profile it as ‘yet another women’s issue'. I would include it in the general absenteeism policy, and we always recommend listening carefully to your employees. How exactly are they struggling?"
"I don't mean their medical complaints, but the impact it has on their employability. Which tasks are more difficult? What do they need to make that work easier? And how can an employer help with that? Be flexible and allow the employee to jointly reflect on the issues and possible solutions. Offering genuine attention and understanding is so important."
Sandra: "In my opinion, a menopause policy could actually help break the taboo. If the menopause or your periods are causing you problems at work, you should be able to talk about it - to a designated confidential adviser, for example. It certainly doesn't seem like a bad idea to formally include that in your personnel policy."
"You can also organise information sessions for women in the target group (aged 40 and over) - or even for the whole company, to really address the taboo. Or gauge their specific expectations via surveys or working groups, possibly led by an expert. Do they want to embark on a different career path at that stage? If so, provide internal mobility. Do they want rest or relaxation? The possibilities are endless: yoga sessions, sport sessions, cooler workspaces, etc."
Are other countries more advanced in their menopause policies than Belgium?
Sandra: "In 2021, British presenter Davina McCall released the documentary 'Sex, Myths and the Menopause'. It set a lot of things in motion in British politics at the time, including reimbursement for hormone therapy. The issue is also very much alive in Sweden, but in that country there has always been a strong focus on a manageable working situation."
Christel: "The Netherlands is another frontrunner. For example, there are way more menopause consultants than in Belgium. But our northern neighbours have a more open culture than us anyway when it comes to discussing such topics."
"Employers should obviously not only focus on the small group who make drastic decisions due to the menopause. In fact, there is a larger group that opposes this: women who have no or few complaints, and those who keep on working because they are afraid to talk about them. Information sessions give them an important signal, as this openness can encourage them to help think about a solution."
Can we link the menopause to a higher rate of absenteeism?
Christel: "Hardly any studies have been conducted about the link between the menopause and work. We do know that both older men and women are more guilty of longer absences; short absences are observed more among young people. Women are absent more than men and tend to be absent for longer, but they also have more health problems. Moreover, according to research, higher absenteeism among women is due to health variables as well as the home situation. For example, women still do more chores than men."
"The menopause can certainly play a role in this regard. In general, a lot of female complaints appear relatively early on. Examples include menstrual pain, breast cancer or endometriosis - a condition in which cells of the endometrium also grow outside the uterus. At the same time, we find that prostate problems in men, for example, occur much later, after the working age."
Sandra: "This is obviously not a battle for attention between men and women. The most important thing is to listen to someone who is struggling, and look for solutions together."
The menopause and your absenteeism policy
An employer has numerous options to support the mental well-being of his or her employees - whether or not they are struggling with the menopause. So why not address menopausal symptoms in your general absenteeism policy? How should you go about it? Our absenteeism experts are at your service.