Menopause is one of the strongest taboos still existing in the workplace. Despite the fact that menopausal women are the fastest growing demographic in the workforce, it remains a rare topic of open discussion among both employers and employees. Perpetual stigma and misunderstanding around this natural transition have made women experiencing menopausal symptoms often have to struggle and suffer in silence.
The question remains: what’s the big deal with menopause? HR in Asia talks to JPS Choudhary, Regional HR Head for Asia, Africa and the Middle East for Vodafone in a candid interview to gain insights on why and how business should start talking about menopause at work. Check it out!
Question: What are common stigmas around menopause that make women feel uncomfortable talking about it openly at work?
Answer: While menopause is a biological transition that happens to half of the world’s population, it’s still a taboo topic at many workplaces. In the past, where there was little to no reliable medical information, women experiencing menopause were thought to be irrational and hysterical, and some of these stigmas still continue today. There is also some general cultural discomfort surrounding the female body that stifles open discussion about menopause at work.
The result is female employees are less likely to voice their troubles about their condition for fear of coming across as less-than-competent employee. This is a pertinent issue we must address. In an independent study conducted by Opinium, commissioned by Vodafone, it was revealed that 62% of those who experienced menopause symptoms said that this impacted them at work – that’s a clear imperative for organisations to start the conversation around menopause to better understand how we can support the staff, who are a key driving force of any business.
Question: All women experience menopause differently. But are there signs that companies should look out for?
Answer: Women going through menopause can experience a range of symptoms, from fatigue and hot flushes to insomnia and depression. Many exhibiting these symptoms have been misdiagnosed as suffering from mental health issues – which makes it even more important for discussions about menopause to be normalised so female employees can receive the appropriate support they need.
Question: Why does Vodafone feel there’s an urgency to launch programmes to support employees during menopause? How will these initiatives benefit the organisation?
Answer: As an employer of over 36,500 women directly and hundreds of thousands more across our global supplier base, we believe that understanding the needs of our workers and supporting them through all stages of their life reinforces our ambition to be a company whose global workforce reflects the customers we serve and the broader societies within which we operate.
We currently already support our employees through their pregnancy and parenthood journeys through our global maternity policy, where women across our Vodafone offices are offered a minimum of 16 weeks of fully paid maternity leave and a 30-hour week at full pay for the first six months after their return to work. We also launched the ReConnect programme in 2017 for career rejoiners who may find it daunting to return to work after their hiatus. The programme entails flexible working options, tutelage under a mentor and access to a range of internal learning resources and workshops to help these employees during this transition. Initiatives like these have been running smoothly for years, and we’re seeing positive reactions from our employees.
Helping our employees cope with and manage menopause is part of this commitment to ensure they are supported through every life stage. Menopause currently affects around 15% of our 100,000 employees globally, and we want to make sure that our female staff are comfortable seeking support from their colleagues, which is why we rolled out a series of training and awareness programmes for all employees.
It is important that our female employees get the same support and understanding as if the male peers had any other health issue, as equality of opportunity between the sexes is a key indicator of long-term social stability and economic prosperity.
Question: Older women often become subject to “gendered ageism”. Do you think that commitment to support women during menopause could help create a more inclusive work environment for this group?
Answer: Absolutely. As mentioned earlier, there are stigmas surrounding menopause, and the first step towards breaking this taboo topic is to initiate conversations around it. A way to get these conversations going is for the organisation itself to signal a commitment towards providing active support for these women during menopause. We hope that by doing so, we normalise these conversations at the workplace, and make sure this group of employees do not feel isolated during this stage of their lives.
However, declaring commitment itself would not suffice. Organisations should back their words with concrete action. This is why Vodafone is introducing a balance of support and assistance, training and awareness. Existing policies will also provide support including the ability to take leave for sickness and medical treatment, flexible working and care through Vodafone’s Employee Assistance.
It’s important to understand that it’s a culmination of initiatives and actions that creates a more inclusive work environment. Like any vision a business may have, creating an inclusive workplace is also a process that takes time and effort.
Question: What are some of the barriers in terms of providing support for women experiencing menopause symptoms at work?
Answer: It goes without saying that the culture of the workplace is a huge factor – if staff don’t feel comfortable in confiding for fear of negative responses, organisations might not be able to provide adequate support during this particular stage of the employees’ lives.
Even if the employees are open to having these conversations, barriers can also come in the form of knowledge gaps. Line managers are often the first point of contact if someone needs to discuss their health concerns, and if these managers have minimal knowledge on menopause, its symptoms, and the range of support available in the organisation, it’d be daunting for employees to confide in them on this issue and hence receive the support they require.
This is why Vodafone rolled out a training and awareness programme to all employees globally, including a toolkit focused on raising understanding of menopause and providing guidance on how to support employees, colleagues and family members.
Question: To raise wider awareness on menopause, are there steps that other businesses – such as SMEs – can take as well?
Answer: Businesses have the responsibility to consider adjustments to alleviate or remove barriers where possible, so affected employees can continue performing to the best of their ability.
Line managers in any business – big or small – play an important role in ensuring that menopausal female staff gets the help they need. The level of trust you build with your employees will determine how comfortable they are in discussing this topic with you.
SMEs could roll out company-wide policies to provide greater support too. This can include reimbursing the cost of special counselling sessions and the ability for employees to take leave for sickness and medical treatments.
There are also some immediate actions businesses can take to alleviate the stresses of menopause. Consider offering the ability to swap shifts or even flexible working arrangements for insomniac employees. Simple fixes like installing a fan or adjusting the air conditioning for staff experiencing hot flushes go a long way too.
Ultimately, it’s about cultivating a culture where employees feel cared for and included. The support businesses give employees is crucial in creating this culture, and with a global ageing population, it’s paramount that businesses start having clear action plans on how they can provide help to their mature workers during this transition.
JPS Choudhary is Regional HR Head for Asia, Africa and the Middle East at Vodafone, where he manages the strategic and operational development of human resources programmes for the organisation across the region. He has been with Vodafone since 2007 – initially as general manager of HR, before being promoted to associate vice president of HR in late 2011, and again to his current role in 2014.
A commercially driven HR professional with more than 20 years of experience, Choudhary’s diverse HR experience includes working for aspirational brands like Philips, Gates, TATA, and the Indian Army.
Connect with him on LinkedIn.
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