A recent study by researchers at La Trobe University and Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, suggests that working women “need more managerial support [while] going through menopause.” This “Women at Work” study explored the health and wellbeing of working women and women’s satisfaction at work, yet focused on working experiences in or around menopause. The lead researcher, Professor Gavin Jack, reports that “menstrual status did not affect work outcomes” but that “if a woman had one of the major symptoms associated with the menopause — for example weakness or fatigue, disturbed sleep or anxiety, then this did influence how they regarded work.” Jack is further quoted as saying: “What is really important is not the fact of going through the menopause in itself, but the frequency and severity of symptoms which women experience, and how these factors affect their work.”
This study has been described in several news sources over the past few weeks, such as the International Menopause Society, Science Daily, and IrishHealth.com. I have many reactions to this research, both positive and negative.
I’ll present my positive feelings first: I appreciate the fact that researchers are talking about the fact that menopausal women are a large part of the workforce and that menopausal experiences matter for individual women. I also applaud the attention given to the fact that workers are human beings with bodies, and that bodies matter. The idea that employers should recognize that paid workers have bodies and that paid workers may be affected by their bodies is an excellent one. I agree that employers should be educated to be more sensitive to menopause and other bodily experiences that their paid workers might have, and simple adjustments in work policies and work environments can go a long way in making employees happier and more productive (plenty of research has already shown this). Finally, and maybe most importantly, as one article in Science Daily notes, “Not enough attention is paid to the experiences which people go through at different stages of life — the workplace treats this very unevenly.” I couldn’t agree more. Especially when it comes to midlife and aging, we forget that paid workers are still dealing with bodily transitions. We forget the range of chronic illnesses that paid workers might have at midlife and beyond, as well as the many normal health transitions that any midlife or aging individual deals with. Anything from the acquisition of bifocals (and learning to see differently through bifocal lenses) to the hassles of dealing with back pain, neck pain, arthritis, hearing impairments, insomnia, etc., can affect one’s work. Not to mention menopause, prostate conditions, and other aging health concerns that can involve a range of different signs, symptoms, and stages. Starting at midlife, it is also much more common to deal with caregiving for elderly parents, divorces and remarriages, putting kids through college (or putting up with adult kids living at home), deaths of parents and spouses/partners, and other social transitions, and all of these things will impact how a paid worker feels and acts on the job. There is much to pay attention to about paid workers in their 40s, 50s, 60s, and beyond, and I believe that this research is a good start on that. Middle-aged paid workers may be reaching the peaks of their careers and may be excellent at their jobs, but they’re still dealing with a multitude of other life circumstances at the same time. And if they’re not performing well on the job, it may well be because of these very same issues. Paid workers are people, with full lives and physical bodies that they can’t leave at home (no matter how much they try).
I do have to offer my negative reactions to this research as well, however: Whenever I see menopausal women picked out and studied specifically for their difficult symptoms, I worry about how those results will be used by others. Someone skimming the news reports might assume that this research shows that menopausal workers are harder to deal with, or aren’t ideal workers. So, let’s make sure we read this research appropriately: this research does NOT report that the quality of women’s work decreases when they reach perimenopause or menopause. This research only reports that women feel differently about their workplaces and sometimes wish their employers were more supportive of menopausal symptoms. If we don’t read carefully, then we might assume that being menopausal is more deviant than it really is. Working While Menopausal is not typically a negative status, or at least not for most women. Quick news reports also don’t always portray research in full, and I think it’s important to note that women are not always bothered by menopausal signs and symptoms. This was a study that asked primarily about women’s feelings about their workplaces and how health and wellbeing impacted work satisfaction. It is not a study that can give us comprehensive information about women’s menopause experiences. Finally, let’s remember that menopause is just one of many, many health and illness experiences that can affect how people feel and act on the job. Menopause is not necessarily a reason for employers’ alarm, any more than divorce or elderly caregiving or arthritis or back pain is. Rather, employers should be sensitive to the health and wellbeing of all paid workers across the lifespan and recognize that different groups of workers face different health and wellbeing issues.
I think that the most positive contribution of this research is that it reiterates that paid workers have bodies. Employers need to recognize that paid workers have a variety of bodies and represent a variety of life stages. Sure, the ideal worker might not have a body but that ideal worker doesn’t exist. We bring our bodies to work!