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Menopause as a leadership passage by Jane Aubriet-Beausire

The Oxford Group

17 October 2022

As leaders within The Oxford Group, we have been talking about menopause and andropause on a regular basis within our own teams. Given that today is World Menopause Awareness Day, it seemed pertinent to explore why we believe it would be valuable to understand more about menopause (and andropause) in organisations and workplaces.

 

It makes good business sense 

The evidence demonstrates quite clearly that organisations need to take menopause into account for clear business and economic reasons.  An article by Prof Jo Brewis*, shared a study that demonstrated the link between menopausal vasomotor symptoms (hot flushes & night sweats) and womens productivity at work.  Women affected by these symptoms lost around 60% more work productivity in days compared to women who do not have the symptoms. This equates to $2100 per woman per year; a productivity loss of $150 billion a year.

It makes good business sense and, in a world where we are striving to hold our values and principles at the heart of our organisations, it is also critical in supporting diversity, inclusion, sustainability, employee wellbeing and development.

 

It creates more inclusive and empathetic workplaces

As I sat and reflected on how I might bring value to the conversation about women and men experiencing menopause and andropause and the impact to organisations, I reflected on my own journey and my own misunderstanding of what menopause was. To be honest, I also was not familiar with andropause and the impact of this stage of life on men.

I thought menopause was a moment in time when my body would change, and I would no longer have periods. A key moment of transition where I would potentially experience some of the better-known symptoms such as hot flushes, sleeplessness and dry skin. At the same time, because I am interested in personal development and womens issues, I imagined it as a time when I would step into my power as a wiser and equally valued member of society. This reflects my own upbringing, my own culture, and my education which I respect is not the same for everyone.  As a person, I am confident, body conscious and not necessarily concerned about growing older and I am ashamed to share how naïve and insensitive I was.

Through my own journey and thanks to great authors, journalists, workshops, health and wellbeing professionals and groups such as the City & Guilds M-Support group, I have gained some insights that I would like to share.

 

Menopause is not a distinct and relatively short period of transition, so it is likely more people are being affected than you might realise

It is a journey that each woman experiences through peri-menopause, menopause and post-menopause and it may affect individuals for 10 to 20 years between the average ages of 40 and 60. It is similar for men. Some women and men experience premature menopause or andropause for medical reasons and there is little understanding or awareness of the impact of this journey unless leaders or managers have been through it themselves. How the menopause and andropause affect women and men has not been addressed until fairly recently, with the growth of support groups and awareness in some cultures, although it is still seen as a conditionrather than a transition.

A quick word on andropause – this refers to the symptoms men experience as their testosterone production levels decrease after the age of 40.

 

Menopause (and andropause to a lesser degree) can cause a huge spectrum of symptoms, and every individual is affected very differently in terms of type, number, and degree – it is important you understand the implications of this in supporting employee wellbeing

These symptoms can begin at the start of peri-menopause and continue into menopause and post-menopause. As women and men are often navigating life changes through these years - including caring for elderly parents, managing high-pressure jobs, growing families with greater demands on time and the challenges of prioritising multiple needs - symptoms are often seen as a natural consequence of extrinsic stressors rather than physiological reactions to significant changes in hormones. The stress of menopausal symptoms such as lack of sleep, anxiety, depression, brain fog and memory loss has a significant impact on how individuals can perform in their roles. The consequent lack of confidence and understanding of what they are going through leads to a dangerous and self-fulfilling loop, where confidence and self-esteem are significantly challenged.

Often there are a combination of different symptoms which go undiagnosed until health professionals or the person themselves join the dotsto recognise that it is related to hormones. Treatment can be provided in the form of HRT, as well as alternative therapies, so relief can be found although it can be more effective for some than others.  Some people have no symptoms at all, so it is important to respect that every individual experiences a very different journey and, therefore, assuming that everyone will be affected in the same way is also not helpful.

The symptoms of andropause include mood swings and irritability, loss of muscle mass and reduced ability to exercise, fat redistribution, such as developing a large belly or "man boobs" (gynaecomastia), a general lack of enthusiasm or energy, difficulty sleeping (insomnia) or increased tiredness and poor concentration and short-term memory.  Although generally less severe across the population than symptoms experienced by women, men will not generally acknowledge or seek help as they are often completely unaware of what they are experiencing.

As a leader, be aware of the symptoms of menopause and andropause so that you can create environments that allow individuals to adjust their work routines to meet their needs as well as finding support if necessary. 

 

There are many beliefs about menopause (and andropause) that dont reflect the values many organisations share and aspire to reflect – what are your own beliefs?

Our role as leaders is to recognise our own beliefs about menopause and andropause. By being aware of how we see these transitions, it allows us to become better equipped to observe and not make assumptions when people are not performing.

From a practical perspective, are we creating work environments with psychological safety that allow people to be present and authentic?  Are the topics of menopause and andropause spoken about within the organisation?  Are there resources that people can tap into, such as internal support groups or resources via healthcare providers?

As leaders, are we also having conversations on a regular basis that allow us to build a climate of trust that allows individuals to share when they might be needing additional support?  Be open to checking in on your team’s wellbeing and notice any significant changes. 

Its not about asking someone how they are managing menopause or andropause, its about creating the conditions that allow people to share if they are having any challenges.

 

Menopause or andropause as a life and leadership passage – how can we change our perspectives as individuals and communities?

In many cultures, life transitions are recognised and celebrated – birth, adolescence, marriage, parenthood - and in a few cultures the transition to this next phase of life is honoured and valued.

In some of the work done with our clients we talk about the three key phases of life as described in The Seasons of a Man’s Lifeby Daniel Levinson.  Up to the age of about 30 our priority is to learn – about everything, our choices, our lifestyle, our work, our relationships. From 30 to 50 years of age we focus on prioritising – finding the balance between multiple roles at work, home, in the community – the focus is on how to find balance.  Post 50, the emphasis is on leveraging; how can we take all we have experienced and go to the next level?  Taking on the projects we never dared, giving back to the community, walking a different pathway…

In todays world this resonates strongly as individuals search for meaning in a context where there is huge complexity.  Connection is key and is not always facilitated across generations, regions, functions, industries, and communities.

In terms of leadership, my own observation is that there is value in honouring the experience and depth of all leadership passages, including menopause and andropause.  I was lucky enough to have worked with David L. Dotlich, James L. Noel and Norman Walker when I worked at Novartis many years ago. They wrote a book called Leadership Passages: The Personal and Professional Transitions That Make or Break a Leader”. It is a very powerful book about those moments when leaders need to step back and learn from the challenging personal and professional experiences they have. 

Menopause and andropause can for some people be profound, challenging, soul destroying times where everything we thought was solid suddenly shifts.  Instead of being able to count on familiar physical, emotional and intellectual responses to situations, we suddenly find ourselves reacting in different ways. What is familiar becomes unfamiliar and we no longer stand in a space we can confidently hold. Often this is done with huge reserves of strength being deployed so that nobody notices and where it is noticed, there can be a lack of understanding as to what is going on and why performance and presence might not be consistent.  Initially there is some support, but its often put down to external situations or circumstances that are transitory. Often when the person doesnt return ‘to normal’ in the expected time frame, we see individuals missing out on promotion or being unfairly seen as less effective than their peers. The consequent loss of confidence and talent within companies is huge and this is something we have observed the world over.

The reality is that those who pass through this profound change with ease or huge disruption are all holders of key life experience.

In a world where we are invited to demonstrate agility in the face of constant change, where our clients and stakeholders ask us to respond in intelligent, creative, humane, and sustainable ways, this leadership passage has the power to be a source of strength, compassion, and insight for many.

Our role is to support this change in perspective.

 

*Open University. Co-author of the Government Office Report Menopause transition: effects on womens economic participation. study in 2020

**Leadership Passages: The Personal and Professional Transitions That Make or Break a Leader

David L. Dotlich, James L. Noel, Norman Walker