Career Breaks and Menopause: How HR Can Support Women Throughout their Career

6 minutes read
By Sinakho Dhlamini, HR Content Specialist, Top Employers Institute
Sinakho Dhlamini
Content Marketing Specialist
Exploring the challenges facing women in the modern workplace

March is an appropriate time to celebrate women and shed awareness on the issues still affecting women's lives worldwide. The theme of this year's International Women's Day was #EmbraceEquality. With this in mind, we must look at what is stopping organisations from forging a place for women's equality. We did this in an earlier article that looked at some of the work still needed by organisations. 

In 2023 we can see that while many organisations are stepping up around issues and challenges affecting women, many unaddressed problems hinder women from being recognised for their hard work in the same way that others can.

While the issues affecting women are not limited to March, we would like to use the momentum created by International Women's Day and the month it sits in to explore some of the challenges still facing women in the workplace.

Women in the Workplace Returning After a Career Break

The childcare responsibility still weighs the most heavily on mothers, with many taking a sustained career break due to having and looking after children. Women are also still more likely to take a career break to become a caregiver for other family members like parents or siblings. When women return to work, it can be difficult for them to return to full-time employment, primarily when they work for organisations that do not prioritise the flexibility these women need to be mothers and employees. 

The world of work is changing constantly, and when women take a long break from the workplace, they will find that it is different upon their return. While these workers have been out of the workplace for a significant period, their skills and knowledge are still invaluable to many organisations. 

Women who have worked in corporate environments previously are seen to be more able to manage their time effectively while also being more productive than other people. As such, the HR teams of many organisations should recognise some of the practices needed to make a woman's return to work smooth. 

Some of the ways HR leaders can use to support women and ensure a smooth transition back into the workplace for women:

  • Create support groups and employee resource groups. 
    • When women leave the workplace for an extended time, they may find it difficult to fit back into work as they did previously. Organisations can provide support groups for women of all ages to assist women in this transition. Organisations can facilitate several groups, from mommy clubs to grief recovery programmes, mentioning, career mapping and leadership programmes. Groups like these can give women a comfortable place to share their difficulties in returning to work while learning and being inspired by others. 
  • Offering flexible working options. 
    • The global pandemic caused many organisations to allow their employees to have more flexibility in their work hours and more flexibility where they work – with many still allowing for this flexibility. Organisations embracing this flexibility will create a more appealing workplace for women returning to work as they can find their individualised balance between work and home life. 
  • Create and implement a returners programme. 
    • A returners programme is an initiative that helps adults who have taken prolonged breaks from work re-join the workforce. These programmes are not one size fits for any organisation and must be specified to the organisation in question. Still, for the most part, they help participants develop new skills, broaden their networks and explore different positions in the company. In an earlier article, we explored reintegration programmes for women after a career break by looking at two leading companies in Spain.

While these strategies can help improve the workplace for women, there are many more programmes and initiatives organisations can use to help them return to work.

Menopause in the Workplace

Worldwide around 51% of the population will experience menopause. Menopause is a normal, natural and inevitable part of ageing as a woman. Yet, there is still a considerable stigma around menopause, particularly in the workplace. 

A 2022 study by the Women and Equalities Committee in the United Kingdom found that women of menopausal age are the fastest-growing group in the workforce, and this group is staying in employment longer than ever before. While this group is incredibly experienced and skilled, organisations offer little support regarding their menopause-related symptoms. Some organisations choose not to address the issue head-on. As a result, many women find their responsibilities and work hours cut back. 

Organisations in their well-being plans often overlook menopausal-aged women, but this needs to change as it's time for menopause to be addressed more openly at work. 

It has been found that menopause as many as 40% of menopausal women say that their symptoms have interfered with their work performance. When menopause and the symptoms it causes are neglected, it affects not only the individual employee but also the overall bottom line for an organisation. According to Frost & Sullivan, worldwide menopause-related productivity losses can exceed $150 billion annually. 

Organisations that want to get the best out of their employees must address the issues caused by menopause. Some of the ways they can do this already involve practices that many of them are engaged with, including:

  • Encouraging open and honest conversations in a psychologically safe environment.
    • The stigma around menopause is one of the issues keeping people experiencing menopause from speaking out. Still, one of the most powerful ways to minimise this stigma is to have open and honest conversations about it. Empowering employees to discuss their issues openly and honestly at work is something we highlighted as a key trend in the World of Work Trends Report 2023. When organisations try to address menopause, they may be able to empower employees to speak about their issues by having women in executive positions share their own stories about menopause.  
  • Offering flexible working options.
    • Flexible work hours are becoming more commonplace worldwide, as many organisations allow employees to choose their working hours. Businesses that offer policies that allow for flexible work options allow women to choose work hours when they feel the most productive and where they feel the most comfortable, allowing them to alleviate uncomfortable symptoms caused by menopause. 
  • Raise awareness about menopause for all employees. 
    • Organisations should invest in training and awareness programmes that help everyone to learn how to support women going through menopause. While this training and awareness is essential for managers, there must be a general awareness of it throughout the company. If this is done, it will allow people to know what symptoms to look out for and how they will impact the workplace environment. Employees who are also aware of the struggles with menopause will also be more able to support and engage with women experiencing menopause. 

Menopause typically coincides with the time when women are most likely to be moving into top leadership positions at work, as it typically begins between the ages of 45 and 55. However, an often ignored or overlooked issue draws those experiencing symptoms into silence. Organisations prioritising their employees' psychological safety and comfortability will find several positives to destigmatising this normal aspect of ageing. When this is done, they can get the best out of their employees.

A meaningful commitment to the advancement of women in the workplace relies on organisations not only acknowledging the challenges facing women. They must genuinely address these challenges to allow women to be comfortable at work and thrive at work. Addressing women's issues does not mean neglecting the problems of other employees. Organisations must realise that employees are unique in the issues affecting their ability to show up at work.

The role of women in the workplace must be maximised. When organisations make significant steps to address issues that impede inequity, they will be more able to get the best out of their employees throughout their career journey. 

Table of contents
Career Breaks and Menopause: How HR Can Support Women Throughout their Career

    Become recognised for your excellent employee conditions.