Menopausal symptoms = a recipe for disaster when it comes to feeling ‘on it’ at work. But, until recently, no one gave it much thought (well, other than all the women suffering through it in silence). The symptoms – which can include hot flushes, night sweats, insomnia, anxiety, concentration/memory issues and overwhelming fatigue – can range from minor to severe, with three out of five women saying it has a negative effect on their work.
But, finally, it’s becoming a thing for workplaces to be woke about the menopause, partly because of celebs opening up. Meg Mathews, whose new book The New Hot is available to order now, started megsmenopause.com to educate and encourage openness (it inspired her to bring out her MegsMenopause range, available at Boots), while Patsy Kensit recently wrote about how her meno symptoms made her worry about the impact on her career.
And the really whoop-worthy news? There’s been a government report into the menopause and its effects on women in the workplace. And ACAS (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service), which offers advice to employers and employees, has updated its guidelines, suggesting that companies draw up specific menopause policies and make tweaks to working environments. It’s also worth checking if your company holds menopause-awareness sessions.
This is all super-important stuff because of the sheer number of women impacted – and how long it can go on for. Menopausal symptoms can begin months, or even years, before your periods stop (this is known as the perimenopause. You’re officially in the menopause when you don’t have a period for 12 months). And the menopause itself can last an average of four years – longer for some. The impact at work can be devastating: a quarter of women have considered leaving their job because of it.
With 68% of women over the age of 50 in employment, it’s essential that workplaces do more to help these experienced staff members cope with their symptoms. ‘Menopause is a normal life event. This means that it’s too often under-recognised, undervalued, and not taken seriously,’ says Dr Louise Newson (menopausedoctor.co.uk), a GP specialising in the menopause.
‘Three years ago, it was rare to find an organisation with menopause support but, thankfully, that’s changing fast,’ says Deborah Garlick, a menopause trainer (menopauseintheworkplace.co.uk). She says that small things can make a big difference, whether that’s staying cool with a desk fan or being able to adapt a uniform so you can cope better with hot flushes.
It’s also a good idea to empower yourself by reading about symptoms. So we’ve rounded up some of the main ways your fluctuating hormones might affect you during your working hours, with advice on how to cope.
Ah, the dreaded hot flushes. These short, sudden feelings of heat, usually in the face, neck and chest, can make the skin red and sweaty – sometimes so much so that it can saturate your clothes. Other than having a change of outfits in your locker, the Faculty Of Occupational Medicine suggests solutions such as looking at temperature and ventilation, moving your desk nearer to an open window and away from radiators, and having a loo nearby so you can get changed if you need to. Uniform or work dress code causing woes? It encourages employers to allow removal of layers – jackets and ties, for instance.
Of course, even the non-uniformed among us need to be sweat-savvy. Get rid of man-made fabrics, which don’t ‘breathe’, such as polyester, and opt for loose, lightweight clothes, in black, white or heavy patterns to help minimise any signs of sweating. Opt for natural fabrics such as cotton, bamboo, silk or linen.
‘I’ve embraced layering,’ says Rowan Pearson, 52, who works in marketing. ‘And I make sure my base layer – a cotton vest or a silk camisole top – is something I’d be happy to be seen wearing in public. On my morning commute, I often opt for sportswear with wicking technology, which dries quickly.’
Rethink your meals and drinks at work, too. Hot food and drinks, spicy dishes, alcohol and caffeine are all hot-flush triggers, because they either warm your body, increase your heart rate or lead to changes in your blood vessels that turn up your body’s thermostat. Other ways that can help you keep cool include losing weight, if you need to (overweight women have higher levels of oestrogen and find it harder to stay cool), quitting smoking (which expands your blood vessels) and exercising more (it improves thermo-regulatory control of sweating, skin and blood flow).
And talk to your GP! ‘Many women don’t realise how effective hormone replacement therapy (HRT) can be at drastically improving symptoms and quality of life,’ says Dr Newson. Although the latest NICE guidelines on HRT state that it can increase your risk of breast cancer, the NHS says its benefits generally outweigh the risks. Your GP will weigh up your personal pros and cons.
‘The psychological symptoms – loss of self-confidence, low self-esteem, anxiety and depressive feelings – are usually the ones that affect women the most,’ says Dr Newson. ‘But many don’t recognise it’s caused by the menopause or perimenopause, so they don’t ask for help.’ Keeping track of your cycle might be useful: the Clue app (free for iPhone and Android) isn’t menopause-specific, but it’s a brilliant way of tracking periods and emotions; while Dr Newson’s new Balance app (free; launched in April) includes a mood tracker in its menopause-slaying features.
Clearly, awareness is key, as is identifying other triggers: the double-shot morning latte that makes you jittery or that post-work glass of wine that prevents you from sleeping well.
On the flip side, relaxation techniques, such as mindfulness, have been shown to improve mental wellbeing (try the Calm or Headspace apps). Or, if you feel on the verge of a meltdown, go to the toilets for a few minutes and try a deep-breathing exercise (they’re proven to work), such as Dr Rangan Chatterjee’s 3-4-5 technique. Breathe in for three seconds, hold for four and breathe out for five – repeat until you feel calmer.
Your GP may also be able to refer you for CBT on the NHS, or recommend self-help options such as online courses. While CBT can’t magic problems away, it can help to manage the stress and anxiety.
It might might also be a good time to take up yoga: 20 minutes in the morning could give you a chilled start to the day. For inspiration, try the free, short yoga videos at NHS Fitness Studio.
Yes, ‘meno brain’ is a reality: we’re talking poor concentration, memory problems and verbal slips. ‘Fluctuating oestrogen levels can play havoc with your ability to concentrate and remember things,’ says Diane Danzebrin, a psychotherapist with nurse training in the menopause (menopausesupport.co.uk).
Make technology your friend: set reminders for important times and dates, and print out notes to serve as visual prompts if your mind goes blank in a meeting. This is something that Helen Johnson, 50, an analyst, found invaluable. ‘Whenever I realise my brain isn’t in prime work-mode, I start scheduling my day in solid increments. Say, for the next 30 minutes it’s tackling emails, then 30 minutes preparing for a presentation. That way, I never miss a thing. Wearing noise-cancelling headphones helps concentration, too.’
Understand how you work best, as well: if you feel perkier in the mornings, try to tackle complex jobs before lunch, and save tasks that require less concentration for the pm.
Most employers are, quite rightly, sympathetic towards pregnant women and parents, so there’s no reason why menopausal women shouldn’t get the same empathy. Flexible working is something you can request, as long as you’ve worked continuously for the same employer for at least 26 weeks (find out more at gov.uk).
If you work in an office, rethinking your desk position might be a smart idea, such as a move nearer to a window for some ventilation and natural light, which can help regulate your sleep/wake cycle. Also, get exposure to daylight at lunchtime, as it helps suppress melatonin, the hormone in your body that regulates your sleep and wakefulness, to up your perky factor.
Remember, too, that being even mildly dehydrated can leave you feeling shattered. As well as H2O, snack on cucumber, berries, tomatoes and melon, which are up to 90% water. And in general terms? Cut yourself some slack, share the load at home and stop suffering in silence. Your new mantra? ‘I’ll be seen and heard!’
If you’re struggling at work, you should talk to your manager. While discussing symptoms is a personal choice, being open about how you’re feeling is the best way to get the support you need. ‘You’re not being unreasonable by asking for changes to the way you work, or wanting more openness and help,’ says Dr Newson. You can also take a supportive colleague to meetings to be your advocate.
If your work doesn’t have a menopause policy in place, a good starting point is the guidance on the menopause and the workplace from the Faculty of Occupational Medicine (fom.ac.uk).
Before you approach your employer, take a look at the ‘Let’s Talk Menopause’ section of the CIPD (the professional body for HR and people development) to find out about your employers’ responsibilities and how you should talk to them.
ACAS (acas.org.uk) offers a free helpline, where you can find out more about workplace policies.
The M Word: Everything You Need To Know About The Menopause (Vie), by Dr Philippa Kaye, is a no-nonsense guide covering symptoms, treatments, sex, relationships and work.