A new study says unmanaged symptoms of menopause cost the Canadian economy $3.5 billion each year and employers must take action.
The Menopause Foundation of Canada (MFC) said its groundbreaking Menopause and Work in Canada report released Monday estimates for the first time the “staggering” economic impact of menopause. The report also highlights the “urgent” need for better workplace supports for women experiencing menopause.
“Groundbreaking data produced for this report reveals the staggering impact of the unmanaged symptoms of menopause on employers and on women’s earning potential. Breaking the silence and the stigma of menopause at work isn’t just the right thing to do, it also benefits the bottom line,” notes the report.
“Women are the backbone of critical sectors, providing much needed wisdom, experience and a deep level of competence. They are mentors to younger employees and important leaders in their organizations.”
Compiled by Deloitte Canada, the report’s economic impact analysis found that employers lose $237 million annually in productivity due to menopause. In addition, women face $3.3 billion in lost income due to a reduction of working hours and/or pay, or because they leave the workforce entirely.
“We used data from studies conducted in the US, UK and Canada to estimate the economic impact of menopause on the work force in Canada,” Sebastien Dao, Deloitte Canada’s managing director of economics and health policy, said in a media release.
“We believe the economic loss calculated is underestimated because the data was based on full-time working women.”
50% of Canadian women ‘unprepared’ for menopause
The analysts also estimated that about 540,000 lost days of work can be attributed to menopause symptom management.
“When I started (my own) research, the first comment that was made to me was, ‘I don’t think this is an issue. Women and menopause in the workplace. Why is that an issue?’ And every person, as I let them think through it, they thought about examples for themselves of their employee, their colleague,” Dr. Shawna O’Hearn, researcher and director of global health at Dalhousie University, said in an interview.
“And then they’re like, ‘Oh, maybe that’s why they were sick so often. Maybe that’s why they weren’t performing as well when they were doing so well and then all of a sudden they had this decline.’ And so many examples started to emerge, because it’s been so silent and so hidden in our thinking, let alone in our conversation.”
According to the report, one in two women in Canada are unprepared for menopause. Fewer than one quarter of survey respondents believed they were very knowledgeable about the signs and symptoms of perimenopause and menopause.
O’Hearn said despite being a life phase most aging women will undergo, her own experience was that sex education classes never mentioned menopause, nor did it warrant coverage during her postsecondary education.
“And I’m a health professional. Menopause was nowhere in our training. Nowhere. We spent entire curriculum on children, teenagers, and elderly. Nothing in the age range of 35 to 60,” O’Hearn said.
“Menopause was not talked about… My research participants talked about it, saying ‘I didn’t even know that I was going to go through perimenopause. I didn’t even know what that was.’”
‘Millions of women needlessly suffering’
Most women surveyed for the report (95%) said they experienced menopause symptoms. On average, seven symptoms were reported. They included the more commonly known — hot flashes (62%), sleep disturbances (57%), and mood swings (39%).
But they also included lesser known symptoms like anxiety (32%), urinary incontinence (23%), and heart palpitations (19%). Joint pain and other symptoms were also mentioned.
“The menopause knowledge gap is real and contributes to millions of women needlessly suffering through symptoms that have a negative impact on their health, their quality of life and their work,” the report said.
The report also found that a lack of knowledge about menopause combined with challenges in accessing care and workplace stigma “impacts women’s ability to thrive in the prime of their working lives.” An estimated one in 10 leave the workforce due to unmanaged menopause symptoms.
“The report notes that symptoms don’t limit themselves to off-work hours,” MFC medical advisory board member Dr. Wendy Wolfman said in a media release.
“I see women who try to soldier through without knowing there are safe and effective treatments available, and without enough supports at work. We need to close the menopause knowledge gap and the workplace can help to do that.”
Menopause stigma in the workplace
Women over the age of 40 make up 25% of the country’s workforce at about five million. The report noted the fastest growing segment of working women (two million) are between the ages of 45 and 55, a time when most reach menopause.
“You think about who’s in our workforce and how they’re being supported and how healthy they are. And then we start to realize, ‘Oh wait. Now they’re not being their best selves at work. Therefore they’re not helping their institutions, helping society, in the way that they would like to,” O’Hearn said.
“The numbers in our workforce, the impact on our society, and the impact on individuals really needs to be understood. There are very few women or men who will read this report and go, ‘Oh, this isn’t important.’”
Despite its significant impact, the report found that talking about menopause at work remains taboo, with 40% of working women stating they believe stigma exists.
“That leaves women feeling alone and silently trying to cope, giving their best to their work without asking for the support that could make a difference,” the report noted.
Employers urged to join new campaign
Most women who participated in the study felt menopause inclusive workplaces could have a positive impact on their general well-being. Other benefits cited included a belief that it could help women break through the glass ceiling (62%), reduce ageism (61%) and retain top talent (59%).
“If your workplace cares about attracting and retaining experienced and skilled employees, menopause must be seen as a legitimate workplace issue,” the report said. “If your workplace cares about age and gender equality, or helping women break through the glass ceiling, menopause must be on the agenda.”
The Menopause Foundation of Canada is urging employers to join its new Menopause Works Here campaign to support women in the prime of their working lives.
Dalhousie University ‘a success story’
In addition to the data and firsthand stories featured in the report, Dalhousie University was singled out as a success story for stepping up to become menopause inclusive.
Early in the pandemic, O’Hearn hosted a wellness activity at the university focused on menopause. Although she expected 10 people, hundreds attended the virtual event.
“I had emails beyond emails,” she recalled.
That intense interest led to the creation of a support group that has grown to more than 80 employees. O’Hearn described it as a monthly opportunity for people to share their concerns about their menopause symptoms, treatment, and conversations with workplace supervisors and health professionals. Members discuss nutrition, advocacy, active aging, mental health, hormone therapy, as well as topics like joint and pelvic health.
Menopause is now part of training for Dalhousie University’s staff and supervisors. Departments are looking at flexible work schedules, quiet spaces, and developing supportive strategies for everyone in the workplace.
Interest in Dalhousie University’s approach has been far reaching and includes federal government representatives who recently contacted O’Hearn to learn more.
“I’ve been doing a lot of talks at Dal and doing some training with both onboarding and orientation for managers so that it’s not a hidden conversation, so that a manager has some tools to be able to support their team to be their best selves,” she said.
“What it led to is many people outside of Dalhousie saying to me, ‘Shawna, I’d like to come to your support group.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, but it’s kind of for Dalhousie.”
Newly created Menopause Society of Nova Scotia
The overwhelming number of women desperate for more information about perimenopause and menopause and the success of the Dalhousie initiative led O’Hearn and family physician Dr. Maria Migas to create the Menopause Society of Nova Scotia this past August.
On Monday night the organization hosted its first menopause café. The event was at capacity within two hours of being announced.
“The conversation is within workplaces, and people are wanting it. And not just women. Men have stopped me on the street,” she said.
“And (they’ve) said, ‘I don’t want to ask you in a big meeting, but I don’t know what to do. Should I be asking my employee about this? What should I do? What resources should I have?’ So it is a collective conversation across gender, across age.”
Dalhousie University is also working on incorporating menopause into the medical training of family physicians and programs for other health professionals.
“In the next couple of weeks, family physicians are receiving some training around menopause, and particularly around the different treatment modalities for menopause,” O’Hearn said.
“It’s going to be a slow process…We’re going through a curriculum refresh and trying to think about how we can ensure that menopause is in the curriculum. We’re early days in those conversations, but it is essential.”