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Explores the experiences of menopause for professional women as part of a broader appreciation of health and well-being in later life.

Executive summary

This report presents the key findings and recommendations of a research project entitled Women, Work and the Menopause: Releasing the Potential of Older Professional Women. Menopause is a ‘silent issue’ for most organisations, and older women represent a group whose working lives, experiences and aspirations are poorly understood by employers, national governments and academic researchers alike. This is highly unfortunate given that women aged 45 years and over comprise 17% of the ageing Australian workforce, meaning that over one million working women are currently going through, or have already gone through, the menopause. The broad aim of this project was therefore to examine the occupational health and well-being of older women, with a particular emphasis on understanding women’s experiences of menopause at work. More specifically, the project set out to generate insights on five key areas:

1. Older women’s health and well-being;
2. The relationship between menopause-related symptoms and four specific work outcomes (work engagement, job satisfaction, organisational commitment, intention to quit);
3. Actual and desired levels of organisational support for women experiencing menopause;
4. Work-related and organisational factors that exacerbate or ameliorate women’s experiences of menopause in the workplace; and
5. Women’s first-hand experiences, beliefs and attitudes towards menopause at work.

Data collection took place between November 2013 and March 2014 via two parallel research studies. The first study consisted of an online survey (herein referred to as WAW – Women at Work Survey) of 839 women (age range 40-75 years; average age 51.3 years) employed in academic, administrative and executive roles at three Australian universities. The second study (herein referred to as Prime – The Prime Project) involved 48 qualitative interviews with academic and administrative staff members at two Australian universities. The study identified the following key findings:

  • All age groups reported average to good mental and physical health. While self-reported physical health deteriorated with age, mental health appeared to improve with age (60+ year olds reported better mental health than 40-49 and 50-59 year olds). Among administrative and executive staff, women aged 40-49 years reported greater intention to quit their jobs than their older colleagues (50-59 years and 60+ years old). The interview study was marked by an overwhelming sense that ‘women just get on with it’. This theme captured many inter-related aspects of women’s experiences of mid-life in general (e.g., of juggling demanding and multiple work and care-giving roles) and underlined the considerable, and often unacknowledged, resilience of older professional women.
  • Peri-women currently experiencing the menopause most frequently experienced the following symptoms associated with menopause (in descending order of prevalence): sleep disturbance, headaches, weakness or fatigue, loss of sexual desire, anxiety, memory loss, pain in bone joints, and hot flushes. None of the measured work outcomes differed by menstrual status. However, the more frequently women reported experiencing menopause-related symptoms and the more bothersome the symptoms were, the less engaged they felt at work, less satisfied with their job, the greater their intention to quit their job and the lower their commitment to the organisation. The interview findings, however, suggested that it is difficult to attribute many symptoms simply to menopause. Symptoms can also be associated with ageing and ‘the time of life’ more generally, or the occupational impact of the working environment, such as stress (notably associated with organisational change and work intensification).
  • Negative organisational and managerial messages about older women had a significant impact on how engaged, and how included, women felt at work. There was evidence of gendered ageism, with many women only feeling able to talk informally to other close female colleagues and friends about their menopausal experiences. Organisational sub-cultures were also found to have a significant influence on women’s experience of menopause at work, creating particular demands on women to ‘fit in’ and to manage expectations and workplace identities that assumed an ‘unproblematic body’.
  • Work-related and organisational factors played important roles in ameliorating or exacerbating women’s experience of menopause at work. Temperature control over their immediate environment was important, as was the exacerbating impact of the increasingly sedentary nature of work that might intensify menopausal-related symptoms. However, paid employment also held positive benefits for some women, ameliorating their symptoms and providing an environment in which to develop and blossom as strong, independent and energetic employees. The flexibility of working arrangements (notably in respect of work time) was a particular characteristic that benefited (menopausal) women.
  • Both the survey and the interviews pointed to a lack of menopause-specific support or information in their organisational settings. Many were unsure whether line managers were given training in awareness of the menopause in the workplace. While organisations should provide information, there were varying views about whether organisations should or could introduce menopause-specific policies, or whether that would only serve to marginalise or problematise older workers. While women did not want formal management or ‘intervention’ of the menopause, organisational understanding and support was deemed to be important and part of a broader message as to whether older women were welcome in the workplace or not.

This report proposes a number of recommendations related to Occupational Health and Safety (OH&S) and Human Resources (HR) Management, and emphasises the role of general organisational processes, policies and professional bodies in initiating change. To plan for improved working conditions for older women now, is to ensure that organisations will reap future rewards by acknowledging and investing in this reliable, loyal, committed and resilient segment of the workforce.


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