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It started with persistent fevers. Then there was night after night of insomnia. On top of that, I was completely unable to focus on my work. I went to see my doctor expecting to walk out of the office with some antibiotics, or at the least, a reassurance that I'd feel better soon.

Instead, my doctor said matter-of-factly, “It's menopause."

I was confused, as it was the last thing I expected to hear. But I was also angry. Why? My symptoms made it extremely difficult to work—and, according to my doctor, I was experiencing light symptoms. I wondered, how are millions of women in the workforce dealing with symptoms worse than these on a daily basis? Why isn't this issue addressed in HR policy? Why aren't leaders talking about this regularly?

The Facts

First, let's take a quick look at the sheer magnitude of the workforce impacted by menopause. More than 27 million women between the ages of 45 and 64—which comprises 20 percent of the American workforce—experience menopause each year. By 2018, this number is predicted to rise to 31 million. Symptoms can last between two and ten years, and it's possible for symptoms to start as early as 35 years of age, before officially reaching menopause.

When going through menopause, women experience hot flashes, headaches, insomnia, loss of energy, anxiety attacks, brain fog, aches and pains, and dry skin and eyes. This translates to 20 percent of the workforce potentially coming to work with little sleep, intermittent headaches, and an achy body.

Yet, somehow, discussing policies around menopause—or even mentioning it—is taboo in the workplace. The British Occupational Health Research Foundation found that 20 percent of women believe menopause has had a negative impact on their managers' and colleagues' perceptions of their competence. The University of Nottingham found that many women don't even want to disclose the issue to their manager, particularly if the manager is younger (male or female).

It's time to bring menopause to the table, in order to benefit both those experiencing menopause and the organizations that employ them.

Five Menopause Policies Every Employer Should Have

1. Educate Management

This is a no-brainer that often goes overlooked. Managers should know the symptoms and challenges women face during menopause, so employees feel comfortable disclosing their experiences and managers can approach the situation knowledgeably.

2. Offer Support

Appoint a person (or a few) to act as advocates for women in the workplace going through menopause. This person should know about any special absence allowances, related wellness programs and flex policies. They should also speak to leadership or management on behalf of women if needed/requested.

Alternatively or in conjunction with an internal advocate, you can offer a wellness hotline which provides access to coaches, dietitians, and other advisors for women experiencing menopause.

3. Expand Benefit Programs

Many women are looking to alternative therapies for managing menopausal symptoms such as acupuncture, Chinese medicine and bio-identical hormone replacement. Though women often see significant improvements from these treatments, paying out of pocket for integrative health treatments can be cost prohibitive. Including these options as part of a benefits package would enable more women to seek treatments.

Organizations can also add sick day policies that cater to menopause-related sickness or absence. Women should experience no disadvantage if they need time off during this time.

4. Include Menopause Activities or Speakers in Wellness Weeks

When organization host a "wellness week", they often bring in yoga instructors, massage therapists, nutritionists, chefs specializing in healthy meals and more. Why not add a component to the wellness week that addresses menopause? Some possibilities are a yoga instructor who can offer poses and breathing exercises particularly for women in this group, a dietician to recommend the best diet for symptoms or a funny speaker to "break the ice" on the topic while educating the team.

5. Allow Flexible Schedules When Needed

If a woman is struggling to sleep or feels nauseous at work, a flexible schedule or work from home policies can help tremendously by letting her work and manage her symptoms. As long as she is still being productive and delivering results, it shouldn't matter if she's not in the office at 8am or needs to take a work from home day once in a while.

I hope leaders will take a serious look at the reality women face in the workplace when experiencing menopausal symptoms, and truly consider how they can mitigate the inherent challenges. By implementing these tips, leaders have a real opportunity to make a positive impact on how we provide for women's health and productivity.

Photo: Shutterstock