Working through the transition? Or is the transition working you?

Posted by on Jul 9, 2010 in menopause, Work/occupation | 2 comments

I ran across an interesting study examining how work affects menopause and visa versa. Initiated two years ago by Professor Amanda Griffiths of the Institute of Work, Health & Organizations at the University of Nottingham in the UK, the study aims to identify challenges that women face while working through their transition and also help raise employer awareness.

I contacted Professor Griffiths to learn more . Although she is still compiling her final data (culled from 900 women, ages 40+), she did share some interim nuggets that are pretty interesting.

The fact that menopause, or more specifically menopausal symptoms might affect life quality and work is not a novel idea. Numerous studies have shown that hot flashes in particular can significantly impact daily activities, especially when they are severe. In turn, hot flashes, night sweats and hormonal swings can significantly affect sleep and coping mechanisms. Hence it’s not surprising that among an initial group of 941 female police officers surveyed*, most agreed that the primary factors affecting their ability to function in their job were fatigue and insomnia. Nevertheless,  about 2/3rds said that they wouldn’t or didn’t disclose the fact that they were going through menopause to their managers, either because their managers were men, were younger (and therefore unlikely to understand or have much empathy) or because they felt embarrassed. This point of view only changed if the symptoms were so obvious that they felt they had to explain, if they felt that their ability to cope with their symptoms was less than stellar, if their performance was somehow being affected by their symptoms or if they felt the need to justify a change in their behavior at work.  However, I was heartened to read that many of the women felt comfortable sharing their experience with other colleagues who were similarly in the midst of menopause or had already gone through it.

Griffiths reports that a clear majority of women surveyed that expectations of their physical capacities did not change as they aged. Yet, less than half believed that their contributions were valued as much as their younger peers.

When asked what changes they’d like to see in their jobs to ease their way through the transition and challenges of growing older, most pointed out greater flexibility in working hours (e.g. flex time, no night shifts or since this was a police force, shifting from the front line to a desk job), access to workplace-focused health promotion, such as regular check ups and fitness program), improved awareness among managers of health-related changes in midlife and improvements in the physical working environment.

Griffiths says that more recently, she and her colleagues have surveyed women from all walks of career life, including education, administration and journalism and the final write-up of the study** will include these opinions as well. However, based on our correspondence, it appears that the difficulties that women face in the workplace during the transition are fairly universal. She explains that menopause is ‘taboo’ yet happens to 50% of workforce (I imagine that this number will only continue to grow as the population ages and we are forced due to economic constraints, to work well into retirement years.) “Evidence suggests that some women do experience a lot of difficulty – largely tiredness – much of which can be resolved with sensible line management and flexible work,” says Griffiths. However, “as with any other long-term health condition, employees should feel empowered to discuss health conditions with their line manager/supervisor,  otherwise the latter are not in a position to help.”

Isn’t it time for change? Rather than let the transition work us, shouldn’t we be looking for empowering ways to work through it? In the early days of this blog, I wrote that science has confirmed what women have known all along: social support networks are one of the strongest weapons we have against the aging process. Griffiths’ research confirms that by engaging female peers who are going through similar experiences, we have a stronger experience overall. Yet, she also points out very clearly that men need to be brought into the equation as well. The only way to foster understanding is to share and educate, right?

The research shows that women want their managers to be more aware the menopause doesn’t simply affect their personal lives but also their occupational health. Although sharing may be risky, we really need to ask ourselves how much we are risking by allowing the transition to work us. Time for change, don’t you think?

*The initial research was funded by the British Association of Women in Policing. **Dr. Griffiths’ larger study is funded by the British Occupational Health Foundation.

2 Comments

  1. 7-9-2010

    It is indeed time for a change. Very thought-provoking post, Liz. While there is significant risk involved for women who bring this subject into their workplaces, it must be done in order to address these issues.

    Candace Karu

    • 7-9-2010

      Thank you Candace. I am looking forward to seeing the final analysis but I was intrigued by the initial findings and by Prof Griffiths’ work. Ultimately, she is planning a training program/manual for managers. I would love to see greater awareness here to likewise engage managers in this country.

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