Menopause

Work

According to the Office of National Statistics (2013), the proportion of women between 50 and 64 who are in work is at its highest level ever – 63.2 per cent. Thus many women go through the menopause while working full-time or part-time. Menopausal symptoms such as hot flushes, irregular periods, mood swings and poor memory are often at odds with the self-confident professional image which women want to convey. Women told us how menopausal symptoms affected their work and their relationships with colleagues, and how workplaces were responding to their needs.

Menopausal symptoms and work
In a public environment where presentation matters, women sometimes feel exposed by their inability to conceal the often unpredictable, unpleasant and highly visible physical symptoms of the menopause. Hot flushes and sweats, for example, are not only an obvious sign of the menopause, but can make women feel acutely self-conscious, particularly when working with younger staff members, male colleagues or clients (see ‘Hot flushes and sweats’). Office layouts, workplace rules and practices are rarely designed with the menopausal woman in mind. Wearing a compulsory uniform at work can pose difficulties, with one woman describing how she risked a ‘row with her boss’ if she took her tie off at work when having a hot flush. Another, sharing an office with nine people, found opening a window caused resentment.

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For women in jobs where they have to stand all day or do physical training the unpredictability of periods can be very difficult. Heavy bleeding and pain can cause discomfort and potential embarrassment. One woman, working in retail, found it hard to leave the checkout to go to the toilet when she had an unexpected period (see ‘Changes in periods’).

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Alongside physical symptoms, women talked about how forgetfulness, poor concentration, mood swings and tiredness undermined their confidence, authority and ability to function effectively in the workplace (see ‘Memory and concentration’, ‘Emotions: mood swings, anxiety and depression’ and ‘Sleep’).

Women in senior positions frequently felt that their ability to be in control, make decisions and act as a role model for staff deserted them during the menopause. One woman’s anxiety and loss of confidence and assertiveness made her ‘question every aspect’ of her work. Even though performance appraisals may be excellent, women can become acutely self-conscious, doubting their ability to do their job well. The stress of dealing with staff while feeling ‘tired, emotional and unworthy’ can be exhausting; some women described losing patience and empathy.

Relationships with work colleagues
Women talked about being misunderstood by younger colleagues and male co-workers. Middle-aged women were sometimes unnecessarily branded as ‘hysterical’ or typecast as ‘PMTish or menopausalish’ once they were over 40. In male-dominated workplaces, such as the police and the army, women were reluctant to discuss symptoms or to seek support, for fear of seeming weaker than male colleagues. They wanted to be treated ‘the same as the guys’. The trouble with this approach is that the menopause remains hidden and women can feel isolated with no one to talk to. Men often referred to ‘women’s problems’, and made jokes because they felt embarrassed.

In the workplace, where professional integrity, customer service and good relationships with colleagues are vital, managing impressions, compensating for perceived shortcomings and apologising for inadvertent comments can add to the burden of the menopause. Some women felt they had little option but to take HRT despite its possible risks, or to work part-time (see ‘Hormone replacement therapy (HRT)). Others retreated from situations which might expose their mood swings, irritability and anxiety.

Responding to women’s needs
Yet while women sometimes reported a lack of understanding in the workplace, there were also examples of colleagues and supervisors offering support. One woman described her solidarity with workmates of a similar age; another spoke highly of her previous two bosses, both men, who let her lie down when her periods were bad. One boss helped a woman cope with hot flushes by buying a fan for her desk.

Faced with an ageing workforce, some organisations are starting to acknowledge the effect of the menopause on older women. One woman explained that in the army the menopause is no longer ‘a taboo subject’. Another described how her health and safety officer is ‘getting her workstation sorted’ so she can sit closer to the window.

Recognising the need to set the agenda and educate colleagues, women are starting to talk more openly about their symptoms and about their difficulties in the workplace. Women in some sections of the police service, for example, had helped organise events to raise awareness of the issue; while the British Association for Women in Policing (BAWP) commissioned research to explore the impact of the menopause on the well-being of women police officers (see ‘Resources and information’).

This progress is promising, but more needs to be done. One woman, working in retail where the majority of staff on the shop floor are female, suggested providing more information and ‘a quiet room where women can potter off to deal with what they’re going through’. A police officer called for a redesign of uniforms and body armour.

Education is vital in bringing the menopause into the open. As one woman observed, ‘stress has been highly publicised in the workplace; why can’t they do the same thing for the menopause?’

Last reviewed February 2015.
Last updated February 2015.

 

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