Menopause leave: Is it time for new legal rights to break the stigma in the workplace?

A UK survey earlier this year found that one in three women were missing work due to menopause symptoms such as problems with concentration, hot flushes and depression.
A UK survey earlier this year found that one in three women were missing work due to menopause symptoms such as problems with concentration, hot flushes and depression.   -   Copyright  Canva   -  
By Giulia Carbonaro

With an inevitably ageing population in Europe, the topic of menopause should hardly be a taboo in the workplace anymore - and yet it is.

There’s so much stigma surrounding menopause - the natural phenomenon that generally occurs in the life of a woman (or anyone with a female reproductive system) once she’s no longer fertile - that the topic has long been excluded from public discussion.

Women have been shamed and stigmatised over menopause for centuries, made to feel like the time marking the end of their menstrual cycles also corresponds to the end of their desirability, youthfulness and even value, as ageing women often denounce feeling "invisible" once they’re not perceived as "young" anymore. 

In the workplace, this often translates into senior staff being overlooked for promotions, their talent stifled while companies focus on attracting younger employees.

Most women live through menopause from their early to mid-40s - when they’re usually at the height of their careers - until they leave work. Imagine being on top of your game at work while going through hot flushes, night sweats, insomnia, fatigue, anxiety and mood changes. Some of these symptoms can have a debilitating effect for years.

How could you focus on work and perform at your best under such conditions? Many can't and, often, they don't.

A survey conducted by the UK parliament earlier this year found that one in three women were missing work due to menopause, while less than one in three were actually talking about their symptoms at work.

Some 75 per cent of the 2,000 respondents experienced problems with memory and concentration, 69 per cent felt anxious or depressed and 41 per cent had debilitating headaches.

They didn't talk about these symptoms to anyone at work; not only for fear of the stigma linked to the condition but also because they said they had no idea who to talk to about them.

This is proof that there's a severe lack of awareness of the condition of women experiencing menopause in the workplace. And the problem goes beyond the UK.

No country in Europe currently recognises a right to menopause leave - or has policies addressing the need of women experiencing its symptoms.

In Italy, INAIL - the country's national institute for insurance against accidents at work - recognises the problems faced by working women with menopause, but instead of suggesting policy changes in the workplace at the national level, it offers women tips on how to eat better and exercise more efficiently to alleviate symptoms.

In Spain, the Association for the Study of Menopause (AEEM) does not mention the workplace.

On January 22 this year, the issue of menopause in the workplace was brought forward as a topic of discussion at the European Parliament.

"What action does the Commission plan to take to better prevent and combat discrimination of female workers of menopausal age?" MEPs asked.

"Limiting menopause to a medical and private sphere and the failure to address menopause as a workplace issue is increasingly leading to insufficient protection of female workers and the early exit of women from labour markets, and thereby increase the risk of women’s economic dependence, poverty and social exclusion, contribute to the loss of women's knowledge, skills and experience, and lead to significant economic losses," a statement on the EU Parliament’s website read.

The answer is that any policy in this direction is still in the works.

"So far, there is no EU-wide data collection on this issue," said EU Commissioner for Equality Helena Dally.

Learning from the success of menstrual leave

Spain became the first country in Europe to recognise the right to menstrual leave after its government approved a bill supporting this practice this year. Under the proposed law, women experiencing severe period pain will be allowed to take an unlimited number of days of paid leave each month.

While the West lags behind, countries like Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan already have some forms of menstrual leave in place in the workplace.

There’s no reason why recognition of menopause leave shouldn't follow in the footsteps of the success achieved by the campaign for the recognition of menstrual leave rights.

In the UK, a committee of members of Parliament are now calling for a menopause leave trial, saying "stigma, shame and dismissive cultures [...] must be dismantled".

London Mayor Sadiq Khan already introduced menopause leave for City Hall employees in March.

Millions of women make the workforce strong, in Europe and around the world, and many of them are or will experience menopause for at least a couple of decades while on the job.

Whether we want to avoid seeing these women, trans men and non-binary workers drop out of the workforce because we're not ready to make the workplace comfortable enough for their needs will depend on breaking the stigma around menopause and ageing anywhere.