WORKING WITH THE MENOPAUSE
According to a 2014 Nuffield Health Survey, 10% of women have seriously considered giving up work because of their menopause symptoms.
The number of women aged between 50-64 in employment has risen by over 50 per cent in the last 30 years. The average age of women going through the menopause is 51 so it stands to reason more of us are likely to be experiencing symptoms whilst at work. One in four women report these to be so debilitating their work life is severely affected and around 10 % say they have seriously considered giving up their job because of them.
Creating a more menopause-friendly work environment is one of the big challenges of our time – not least because most of us do not have the option of packing in our job and need to know how best to navigate our way through work while going through menopausal symptoms. Some menopause experts have likened the situation now to how pregnancy and mental health problems were treated 10-15 years ago but which have now, thankfully been brought out into the open and support and understanding have changed dramatically for the better.
Another reason tackling menopause in the workplace is such a big issue is that symptoms (like hot flushes, night sweats, interrupted sleep, vaginal dryness, memory problems, brain fog, mood swings, anxiety and anger) can last between four and 12 years – a not insignificant amount of time. This is also a largely unprecedented problem in that it is only relatively recently that such a high proportion of older women are still in the workplace. Plus those experiencing menopausal symptoms can be loath to talk about it for fear of being seen as weak or incompetent in a highly competitive job market. But think about it (if you haven’t already experienced this): If you don’t get a good night’s sleep you wake up feeling exhausted and drag yourself through the following day’s work. You might also be experiencing serious brain fog and struggle to absorb information. If you are also on edge and teary and can’t concentrate it is highly unlikely you are going to be on top of your game. Sadly, many employers tend to be oblivious to the impact this can have on their employees and there are some frankly shocking statistics revealing just how alone women feel at this time: nine out of 10 say they don’t feel able to talk to their managers about their symptoms.
You can’t necessarily see menopause at work
The whole work situation is not made any easier by the fact many women often put symptoms like low mood, feeling unmotivated, irritability and lack of energy down to natural signs of ageing and/or stress. And whereas more of us might be more familiar with the classic image of the menopausal woman pouring with sweat and standing in front of an open fridge or fan – a more visible sign – it is the psychological and emotional symptoms – the ones that aren’t visible – that can be the hardest to cope with. Feeling overwhelmingly anxious, irritated or weepy and/or angry are emotions that are hard enough to handle in the comfort of your own home, let alone somewhere where your livelihood is at stake.
What works at work?
Look after yourself first and foremost. Eat a healthy, balanced Mediterranean style diet, cut down on alcohol and try to get some gentle exercise. Taking a walk in your lunch hour will not only help keep your weight down, research shows it can significantly reduce feelings of anxiety, stress and depression during menopause. Do whatever you can to improve the quality of your life at home and work – take muscle-relaxing Epsom salt baths to help you sleep; invest in clothing like the Become™ clothing range that can help keep you cool; carry a portable fan for your commute; use a vaginal moisturiser if you are affected by vaginal dryness and itching; download relaxation or mindfulness apps on to your phone and listen to them when you are feeling overwhelmed. Take your time when responding to someone or an e-mail or text that has made you angry – if you are feeling anxious, irritable and tired you could say or write something you later regret.
Many women benefit from HRT - hormones need to be balanced for women to function well physically and they play an important role in cognition and memory. Those taking it generally report their performance at work improves dramatically.
Creating the climate for change
There are other practical considerations that can help. Keep a fan on your desk if you are allowed, request that the air conditioning be turned up or open a window (negotiating this with colleagues who feel the cold can be a challenge but explain politely why it is important for you). What we need to push for, though, is a climate where we as employees feel able to talk about it. There have been strides forward in the last few years and initiatives are being set up in many companies.
In 2016 the Faculty of Occupational Medicine also introduced new guidelines for women, their colleagues and managers to help them navigate their way through menopause more seamlessly. There is also ongoing research at King’s College London in collaboration with the University of Nottingham looking at how flexible working hours could help. They are suggesting, for example, the possibility of having a later start to your day if you have had a bad night’s sleep or coming in a bit later to avoid a hot, sweaty commute. Or possibly doing a shorter working week. There are also helpful in-work menopause workshops available, for example from Let’s Talk Menopause, which have not just helped women going through it but significantly many younger women, and men, who say they have been helped to understand what may be happening to their mum/partner/colleague/boss. By raising awareness of the issues, listening to suggestions from menopausal women and implementing practical changes we should start to make a better job of working through the menopause.
If you need further advice and support or are concerned about any aspect of your health and wellbeing, please do talk to your doctor.
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