Is the menopause still a taboo subject in the workplace?

‘We give teenagers latitude and leeway. We need the same thing for menopausal women’

When women experience it, ‘the menopause is like puberty in reverse’. File photograph:  Getty

When women experience it, ‘the menopause is like puberty in reverse’. File photograph: Getty

 

Four out of five women who responded to a recent survey on the menopause in the workplace said that it is still a taboo subject.

“I’ve been going into workplaces to talk about the menopause for the last 3½ years and each time it’s the first time they have had someone talk about this,” says Catherine O’Keeffe, former financial services director who retrained to become a menopause coach and carried out the survey.

O’Keeffe says that it is in the interest of companies to support women through the menopause because the costs of getting workers of the same calibre would far outweigh the costs of supporting these employees. “Women are often at the peak of their career when they hit the menopause. The wisdom and understanding they have gained over the years is crucial to their companies.”

Loretta Dignam is the founder of the Menopause Hub in Mount Merrion, Co Dublin. As well as offering medical expertise to women in the peri-menopause and the menopause, the hub helps businesses develop policies on the menopause. “The menopause is like puberty in reverse. We give teenagers latitude and leeway. We need the same thing for menopausal women,” says Dignam who runs workshops for managers and human resources personnel on the menopause.

“Managers need to have awareness and empathy and understand the symptoms of the menopause so when women ask for reasonable adjustments such as having a fan on their desk, sitting near a window or close to toilets or being able to work more flexible hours, it’s understood. Having access to a rest room or being able to wear different material in a uniform on a production line can also make a difference,” explains Dignam.

She says that women giving presentations or at boardroom meetings need to be able to say they are having a hot flush without being embarrassed. “We need to change the culture around it so it’s not perceived as a joke.”

O’Keeffe advises women to role play conversations with line managers before speaking to them about what supports they need to help them through their menopausal years.

“Give them a week’s notice so that they can do a bit of research. Write notes about the top two or three things you want to discuss and have your own idea what the solution will be,” says O’Keeffe. In the aforementioned survey O’Keeffe carried out, brain fog was the menopausal symptom that affected women most at work.

Catherine O’Keeffe: ‘When a woman has brain fog, the brain becomes overwhelmed and she has got to be able to pause.’
Catherine O’Keeffe: ‘When a woman has brain fog, the brain becomes overwhelmed and she has got to be able to pause.’

“Seventy-seven per cent of women said they had brain fog, 66 per cent they had anxiety and 60 per cent said they suffered from a loss of confidence. The emotional issues caused bigger challenges in the workplace than the physical ones such as hot flushes, insomnia and aches and pains. When a woman has brain fog, the brain becomes overwhelmed and she has got to be able to pause,” says O’Keeffe.

Heavy responsibility

Her personal experience of the peri-menopause (the years when hormone levels begin to fluctuate before periods stop completely) has informed her work as a menopause coach. “I worked in investment management for 20 years. I managed huge teams and I felt I was the most confident person but in the early years of the peri-menopause, I found I had anxiety and loss of confidence that I never had before,” she says.

The stigma around talking about the menopause was lifted somewhat earlier this year when hundreds of women shared their personal experiences of menopausal symptoms on RTÉ Radio One’s Joe Duffy programme. Such was the impact of their personal testimonies that the subject was raised in the Dáil and the Senate that week as well as being reported across other media. There was widespread shock and anger about how many women felt their wide ranging symptoms were misunderstood and sometimes even misdiagnosed.

The announcement in September by Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly about the establishment of a network of menopause clinics across Ireland is a step in the right direction. These specialist clinics will be part of the HSE’s new approach to delivering care to women experiencing the menopause. The first clinic will be located at the National Maternity Hospital on Holles Street in Dublin and will be run by clinical nurse specialists and GPs with a certified special interest in the menopause.

In time, GPs in the community will be able to make referrals to these menopause clinics which will then have access to other specialists including gynaecologists and pelvis floor physiotherapists.

Helen Keeble is a pelvis floor physiotherapist who is launching a series of online resources for women and workplaces to coincide with World Menopause Day on Monday, October 18th.

“The menopause can have such negative effects that about one in 10 women leave work solely due to severe menopausal symptoms. Ninety per cent of women say that their workplace has no help available at all for employees going through the menopause. Our aim is to empower women to help manage symptoms so that they can carry on working if they want to,” says Keeble.

Massive disservice

Breeda Bermingham, is a former midwife/public health nurse who now works as a menopause coach. She runs the Midlife Women Rock Cafes, a social enterprise whose aim is to empower menopausal women. She believes silence is the real enemy.

Breeda Bermingham: ‘Women are doing each other a massive disservice by not talking about the menopause.’
Breeda Bermingham: ‘Women are doing each other a massive disservice by not talking about the menopause.’

“Women are doing each other a massive disservice by not talking about the menopause,” said Bermingham at a recent Women’s Mental Health Network webinar. Through her Midlife Women Rock Cafes (initially in Waterford and now online), Bermingham (author of Midlife Women Rock: A Menopause Story for a New Generation) offers menopausal women an opportunity to talk about their experiences.

“Many women tell me they want to get their old self back. I tell them I am not the person who can do that. However what I can do and what I am good at doing is assisting women to find a new woman within, a woman who is stronger, more powerful, creative and self-aware,” says Bermingham.

She says that midlife and menopausal women make up the fastest growing cohort at work and she runs lunchtime chats and workplace workshops on the menopause for women and men. “We are the generation to break the silence and the taboo on the menopause. There is still an information and education deficit on the menopause and the peri-menopause. The Government is starting to respond with menopause clinics but an education and information campaign will be the gamechanger,” says Bermingham, who notes the growth of the midlife women’s movement in the UK over the last two years.

“The menopause is a puzzle with lots of different pieces. Shifting the silence will help women and there is a voracious appetite for information. Opening up conversations and providing support is important. We have the power to decide how to navigate this time in our lives,” says Bermingham.

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