Australian workplaces rated as ‘menopause friendly’ on flimsy grounds, inquiry told

<span>Greens senator Larissa Waters has established a Senate inquiry to investigate the health and economic impacts of menopause on Australian women.</span><span>Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP</span>
Greens senator Larissa Waters has established a Senate inquiry to investigate the health and economic impacts of menopause on Australian women.Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

Companies are accrediting workplaces as “menopause friendly” without using any strong evidence in their processes, according to leading women’s health organisations and doctors who say women must have input into any changes aimed at helping them.

A Senate inquiry has been established by the Greens senator Larissa Waters to investigate the health and economic impacts of menopause on Australian women, including its effects on workforce participation and productivity.

Some of Australia’s biggest companies have employed the services of businesses offering dedicated workplace menopause-friendly training and accreditation, which claim to help attract and retain female workers, increase productivity and reduce absenteeism.

These accreditation companies have various ways of determining that a workplace is “menopause friendly”, including assessing a workplace’s policies and procedures, examining whether menopause is discussed openly and promoting menopause awareness campaigns and posters.

Related: ‘Menopause market’: Australian women being driven to treat symptoms with unnecessary products, study reveals

But a submission to the inquiry from the Royal Australian College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists said: “Media coverage in the UK and Australia about women quitting their jobs because of menopausal symptoms is not supported by robust evidence.”

The submission said it was “well established that lack of support and understanding by managers and inflexibility around working hours and conditions contribute significantly to the burden of menopausal symptoms” and that changing workplace practices and culture was required.

But “high quality research must be undertaken to establish how best to support women experiencing troublesome menopausal symptoms in the workplace, including consultation across a range of working environments”, the submission said, adding that consulting women on low incomes and in insecure work vital.

The Royal Australian College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists referred to a study that found “nearly 1 million” women had quit their jobs in the UK due to lack of employer support for menopause symptoms. The study was later found to be flawed, extrapolating data from a non-representative sample of women and combining other reasons for leaving the workforce, such as pregnancy and fertility problems, with menopause symptoms.

A submission to the inquiry led by Prof Susan Davis from Monash University’s Women’s Health Research Program said: “There is currently no evidence-based workplace intervention that improves outcomes for working women or for employers.”

“Commercial groups offering ‘workplace menopause-friendly accreditation’ need to be independently evaluated,” the WHRP submission said.

Data from peer-reviewed studies showed most Australian women (~70%) do not have severe menopausal symptoms, the submission said. But even less severe symptoms can significantly affect quality of life.

Data from the first large, nationally representative survey of Australian women about menopause, co-authored by the WHRP, the Australasian Menopause Society and Jean Hailes for Women’s Health, found that of women of reproductive age (18-44) experiencing menopause, 5% experiencing bothersome symptoms (including hot flushes, difficulty concentrating and night sweats) found it hard to do daily activities, while 3% missed days of work or study.

A higher proportion of midlife women (45 to 64) were affected in the last five years by bothersome symptoms – 26% of this group found it hard to do daily activities, 21% found it hard to work or study, and 15% missed exercise. Fewer than one in 10 (7%) of Australian midlife women missed days of work or study due to menopause, the study found.

The chief executive of Jean Hailes, Dr Sarah White, told Guardian Australia the experiences of these women had to be heard and dictate workplace interventions, but the experiences of women missing work for a range of health and social issues also needed to be considered.

“There is absolutely a need to consider how workplaces respond when women are experiencing menopause symptoms, we need to make sure women are supported for full workforce participation,” she said.

“However, … selling the idea that menopause is somehow exceptional is not, in my view, helpful when one considers that many women experience gendered ageism in the workplace.”

A submission from the Australian Medical Association said reasonable changes to workplaces could include a perimenopause/menopause policy factored into existing health and safety risk assessments, flexible work environments and respectful conversations. These could be important measures within inclusivity policies, the submission said.

Prof Martha Hickey, the head of menopause services at the Royal Women’s hospital in Victoria and the lead author of the first Lancet clinical series on menopause, said in her submission to the inquiry: “A major hinderance to the provision of effective supports is the lack of evidence about what interventions/supports are actually helpful.”

The Senate inquiry’s public hearings will begin in June, with the committee due to deliver its report in September.