Women in their 50s are the fastest-growing cohort of the workforce. This means that a vast majority of women are experiencing menopause during their working lives. This is also at a time when they may be at their most successful in increasingly demanding careers. And yet, the impact of menopause is neglected as many employers do not understand the debilitating effect it can have. Perimenopause is another consideration as this is when symptoms begin to surface and can last up to 10 years, beginning when a woman is in her early 40s.
"The symptoms of perimenopause can be insidious at first and as such can be missed as being part of the hormonal change that we call menopause," says Nicola Wolfe of Menopause Maze. "This may result in women experiencing symptoms such as loss of confidence, increased feelings of anxiety, tension and irritation, and difficulty concentrating, all the while not necessarily associating these challenges as being part of menopause. And this is apart from the myriad of physical symptoms that she may also be experiencing. It is not difficult to see that in an inadequately educated workplace, with inadequate accommodation for women experiencing perimenopause or menopause, continuing in work in a positive manner can be severely challenging."
Understanding the myriad of symptoms and supporting women through this transition can provide a better working life for women. At the same time, it can also improve the retention of an experienced, dedicated, and diverse workforce. Therefore, the onus is on employers to develop workplace policies, procedures, and guidelines that benefit employees to lead a fulfilling and healthy working life.
'Arriving at work on time, facilitating meetings, completing work tasks, and maintaining positive working relationships may become significant obstacles for her'
“It is important to remember,” says Wolfe, who provides coaching for women and group educational workshops on menopause, “that is it is not only middle-aged women who may be going through this. Women who have premature menopause may also be struggling with these challenges, as may some transgender men and non-binary people. Taken all together, this is not an insignificant number of people affected by menopause.”
Eighty per cent of women will experience wide and varied symptoms when going through perimenopause and into menopause. “Research has shown,” says Wolfe, “that a significant cohort of women in this stage of life will choose to leave the workforce or forsake a promotion due to how intrusive the impact of menopause is on their health and wellbeing.”
Healthcare assistant Susan Gannon felt things were amiss when she was turning 40 but was not as in tune with herself at that stage as she is now. The perplexing and varied symptoms of perimenopause can often be mistaken for something else or brushed aside. Anxiety during this stage of life played a significant part in how Gannon recognised the possibility of approaching menopause and where she should be in her working life. While things seemed off for Gannon, she was not expecting her 40th year to pan out the way it did.
“I was working for an aircraft leasing company on good money,” she says, “living with my wonderful partner in a beautiful apartment near the sea.” She found herself becoming increasingly emotional with a baffling anger. Then, in the March, her aunt passed away, and the following May, she was fired from her job. While these were life-changing events, she says that how she reacted to these experiences was out of character, yet life moved on.
She felt things were improving as she began a new contract position. That August, a change occurred, resulting in Gannon plummeting with major anxiety and depression, which seemed to drop out of nowhere. Only two weeks into this new job that she enjoyed, she was struggling with inexplicable overwhelm and anxiety.
“At its worst,” she says, “I was unable to eat, had vomiting and palpitations, my mouth felt blistered, and I was just surviving and coping. I was crying on the bus to work, crying in work, and just completely overwhelmed.”
Previously diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder, Gannon recognised that this was much more than anything she had experienced before and found herself struggling with work.
“I started seeing a new psychologist,” she says, “and mentioned perimenopause. Her response was that in her 25 years of practice, hormones or perimenopause was not a reason for this and that we should probably go to the maximum dosage of my medication so I could get back to work. I didn’t proceed with this because, in my gut, I knew she was wrong.
“I spoke with my GP, and although she didn’t seem to be averse to treating what I felt was hormonal issues, I wanted to see someone who knew more about this.” A consultation with a menopause specialist found the solutions Gannon needed to find her way back to the workforce.
“Prior to my phone appointment, I emailed a list of my symptoms using a menopause tracker and one of the first things she said to me was that yes, I was definitely perimenopausal. She prescribed me with the gold standard of HRT – body-identical oestrogen and utrogestan. My contract position finished up in December 2019, and I started training as a healthcare assistant. I am now working as a full-time healthcare assistant and activities coordinator in a nursing home. I am taking HRT, vitamin B complex, and magnesium and am giving myself time to get well.”
Menopause symptoms can seriously impact a woman’s career and working environment, making this stage of her working life explicitly problematic.
“If a woman cannot communicate the challenges she is experiencing with her colleagues and line manager or HR,” says Wolfe, “then arriving at work on time, facilitating meetings, completing work tasks, and maintaining positive working relationships may become significant obstacles for her, while on the face of it these may incorrectly appear to be inadequate work performance issues. This may have a serious impact on the woman maintaining her role and compound the experiences she is already having as a result of menopause.”
Wolfe highlights the importance of supporting women in the workplace by establishing well thought-out, compassionate, and supportive principles and procedures encompassing the physical health and wellbeing of staff. “A good place to start is producing a workplace policy, procedure, or guideline on how menopausal women are supported,” she says, “including issues such as flexible working, management of absences, and sickness. The organisation can also strive to develop a culture of openness on the topic of menopause and provide access to education sessions addressing menopause for both women and men. The workplace should be a source of positive messaging and culture with regard to menopause.”