ASOS made headlines last week for a slate of new policies, which include paid leave and flexible work options for employees "going through health-related life events," including menopause, fertility treatments, miscarriage, abortion, and gender reassignment surgery. The online fashion retailer, which has a staff of 3,800 mostly based in the U.K., says the menopause leave policy is gender-neutral and recognizes that "the physical and mental impacts of menopause may make it difficult to work in the same way."
The company is being praised for this step, and it's undoubtedly good for their employees (and PR). But the news highlighted the fact that the vast majority of companies don't have such policies, and that many people in the midst of menopause suffer in silence — going through the motions of work while battling hot flashes and mental health symptoms such as mood changes and depression. It also underscores that we just don't talk about menopause enough, a function of broader age discrimination against older workers, and women especially. Particularly today, on World Menopause Day — but really, always — and particularly in the U.S., where paid leave is abysmal, we need to discuss menopause's impact on these workers and what needs to change.
Approximately 1.3 million people in the U.S. enter menopause each year, typically around age 51, according to the National Institutes of Health. Common symptoms include hot flashes, which can be accompanied by heart palpitations or dizziness, a decline in libido, brain fog, and insomnia. Menopause makes it harder to work: Almost half of women experiencing these symptoms believed that they had made their work lives more difficult, according to a 2014 survey by Working Mother Media and Pfizer, and only 54% of those women say their colleagues had been supportive. One in 10 women said she had been passed up for a more demanding position due to menopausal symptoms.
Aside from careers, menopause can also affect people's sense of self. Former What Not to Wear host Stacy London spoke with InStyle about her experience with menopause, saying it profoundly affected her self-esteem and she felt "an incredible loss of identity." It's part of what inspired her to become involved with State Of, a personal care brand focusing on the symptoms of menopause, as its CEO. ("Menopause is not a disease. It's a natural phase of life," one of its Instagram posts proclaims.)
"I think about how my mom used to tell me that she burned her bra in the second wave of feminism but never mentioned menopause, you know? I'm like, you kind of can't have one without the other," London told InStyle in June.
Companies like London's State Of, and a slew of new menopause-specific skincare, hair, and intimate-care brands, are making the hormonal roller coaster of menopause more comfortable, addressing issues such as dry skin, thinning hair, and joint pain. But while there have been significant innovations in these areas, the corporate world hasn't yet caught up to the fact that about half the population goes through menopause. You can buy a $40 cooling spray to tame hot flashes — but taking personal days for menopause symptoms is still largely taboo. This is starting to change, as this year several large companies including Vodafone and Diageo (which owns brands like Guinness and Captain Morgan) have instituted menopause-specific policies. Yet it is still a far cry from the across-the-board mindset and policy shift that workers need in order to truly feel equal and understood, and like their achievements are valued and they're not disposable after a certain age.
OB/GYN Dr. Jen Gunter, who released The Menopause Manifesto: Own Your Health With Facts and Feminism in May, praised ASOS' new menopause leave, but said she unfortunately doesn't think it's coming stateside anytime soon, at least not on a mass scale.
"Given how so many companies in the U.S. have such terrible leave policies, I don't think it will catch on, but I guess you never know," Gunter says in an interview with InStyle. "As no one talks about menopause, just having it mentioned on a policy would be huge."
Gunter thinks employers need to be more aware of what people go through when they hit menopause, that the transition "can be rocky for some women," she says. "Some have horrendous periods. Some get a mild depression. I think in the U.S., where health insurance is often tied to work, that employers should be tackling disinformation about menopause head-on. It would help their employees and likely reduce sick days and also health costs."
When she was in perimenopause, the time when one's body makes the transition to menopause, Gunter was at work and had just left a patient's room when she realized she had flooded the stool she was sitting on with blood. Irregular bleeding is the most common symptom of perimenopause; it's during this transition that symptoms are often the worst. "I was able to change into scrubs and get the stool cleaned off, but I had to finish clinic. Most people don't have a change of clothes at their work!"
These are the types of uncomfortable, and sometimes traumatic, realities that workers still have to deal with without any support from their employers. While at least some of the corporate world is catching on, we're also (again) reminded of how lacking U.S. government policies on paid leave are compared to the rest of the world.
There's currently no federal paid leave program in the U.S., although what critics have called a watered-down paid leave policy is part of the big budget reconciliation bill currently making its way through Congress. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows eligible workers to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a newborn, newly adopted child, or to care for oneself or a family member with a serious health condition. While this could potentially include complications related to menopause, there is no guarantee of menopause-specific leave, or leave due to pregnancy loss or a fertility procedure. Earlier this year, Sen. Tammy Duckworth introduced legislation that would provide three days of paid leave for women following a pregnancy loss, a failed adoption or surrogacy arrangement, or an unsuccessful fertility treatment or related diagnosis.
These realities are frustrating, and this conversation is still young. But we must continue having it, and ASOS' policy is a useful start. It also reminds us just how far we still have left to go when it comes to the rights of all workers.