Employers can support employees going through menopause by improving their workplace culture, communication and accommodation policies and employee benefits, said Janet Ko, president and co-founder of the Menopause Foundation of Canada, during Benefits Canada’s 2024 Chronic Disease at Work conference in February.

She said menopause came a barrage of symptoms that “blindsided” her and disrupted her life. Ko was in her 40s, at the height of her professional career with a job as a senior vice-president, when she began experiencing heart palpitations, joint pain, body aches, brain fog, major fatigue and difficulty sleeping. She thought she was just going through a phase of burnout. “It was a long and winding path to finding health and wellness [again].”

Read: Dalhousie University providing menopause-inclusive workplace through support group, manager training

The experience prompted her to launch the foundation, with a mission to close the menopause knowledge gap, improve access to menopause health-care and create menopause-inclusive workplaces. 

Women aged 40 and older make up a quarter of the Canadian population and many are struggling with the unmanaged symptoms of menopause. It’s something that not only affects their own health, well-being and quality of life, but also has a negative impact on the workplace and economy, said Ko. According to a report developed by the foundation and Sun Life Financial Inc., the economic impact of unmanaged menopause symptoms is $3.5 billion annually, including $237 million in lost productivity and 540,000 missed days of work per year.

Menopause is a phase of life that begins when someone has gone without having a period for 12 months. Perimenopause, the period of time during which the body begins transitioning to menopause, can begin anywhere from two to 10 years prior. Menopause involves a significant reduction in the production of estrogen and given the prevalence of estrogen receptors all over the body, symptoms of menopause can vary widely. There are more than 30 known symptoms, including hot flashes, brain fog and joint pain. Hot flashes themselves are an indicator of potential increased risk of heart disease.

Three-quarters of people who go through menopause have reported symptoms that interfere with their daily lives and performance at work.

Read: Back to basics on menopause support

The stigma around menopause has kept most Canadian women in the dark about what to expect from that time of their lives, Ko said. According to a report the foundation put out in 2022, based on a Leger Marketing Inc. survey of Canadian women between ages 40 and 60, one in two women were unprepared for menopause and their knowledge of the range of symptoms was very low. She said women don’t speak up about what they’re experiencing due to the pervasive social script that connects menopause with decline or a sense of being “past your prime.”

Having comprehensive employee benefits that include coverage for menopause hormone therapy and other Health Canada-approved treatments is key, Ko said, noting that there are new treatments on the horizon “and those need to be covered as quickly as possible.” Generous mental-health coverage and employee assistance programs can support women whose symptoms include depression, anxiety or low mood. Physiotherapy and nutritionist coverage and generous health-care spending accounts can help address symptoms like joint pain, body aches and genital urinary symptoms.

She also encouraged employers to break the stigma by discussing menopause more openly in the workplace, such as through educational sessions.

Read more coverage of the 2024 Chronic Disease at Work conference.