Menopause, but you don’t have to by Dawn Martin

There is a YouTube video where Viola Davis explains the menopause to Jimmy Kimmel.  Viola explains, “When you talk about anything, especially dealing with menopause or breasts, men just die a slow death.” Jimmy, knowing that the question he’s about to ask is stupid – very stupid for a man his age (Jimmy is 51) asks, “What is menopause?”  He’s heard about it and knows that it happens but still doesn’t know what it is.

Viola says, “You know what?  Menopause is hell, Jimmy”.  Menopause is a dark hole, okay?  That’s what menopause is, so that’s where I am right now.  I either will love my husband today or kill him today.”  “How long does it last?” Jimmy asks, “You know what?  Viola says, “Somebody needs to tell me.  It’s lasted now for about six or seven years.”  Viola then goes on to explain the symptoms of mood swings and weight gain that comes with the menopause.

Viola Davis’ appearance on the Jimmy Kimmel Show was a light-hearted way of highlighting the menopause and how men in particular find it something of a mystery.  The truth is that some women do too!

What is the menopause?

Menopause (from Greek mēn: month + pausis: halt) is the cessation of a woman’s menstrual cycle and the end of her natural ability to bear children.  A natural part of aging as a result of the reduction in a woman’s oestrogen levels, the menopause can start between 45 and 55 years of age.  In the UK the average age for the start of menopause is 51, but for 1 in 100 women the menopause commences prior to the age of 40. Menopause can also be triggered by the removal of a woman’s uterus and/or ovaries as a result of a hysterectomy, or by other medical treatment.

Menopause is that period of a woman’s life when she can, on one hand, celebrate freedom from having to deal with having periods, but on the other hand she may be dealing with the symptoms of menopause and still having periods – a double whammy if you like!  

In the UK the perimenopause (the actual lead up to a woman’s final period) is generally referred to as the menopause or menopause transition.  Menopause for some women also signals the fact that their child bearing years have come to an end, with all the emotional complications that may accompany that fact. Menopausal symptoms may continue even after a woman’s final period and she can be said to be post-menopausal when she has not had a period for more than a year.  

Symptoms

Menopausal symptoms include but are not limited to:

  • Hot flushes: a sudden and uncontrollable spike in body temperature, normally in the head and torso region, accompanied by a breakout in sweat.  I like to think of hot flushes as power surges!
  • Night sweats: hot flushes and sweating so much during sleep that your night clothes and bed clothes become soaked, leading to disturbed sleep. 
  • Difficulty sleeping – the night sweats won’t help!
  • Problems with memory and concentration – broken nights of sleep will not help!
  • Vaginal dryness and discomfort during sex – the juice is gone…
  • A loss of libido.
  • Bladder weakness – those TENA Lady ads start to register on your consciousness and you consider pelvic floor exercises!
  • Low mood or anxiety.  Is it any wonder?  Dem hormones!
  • Mood swings and irritability – changing hormone levels, remember PMT?
  • Headaches
  • Palpitations
  • joint stiffness, aches and pains
  • Weight gain

The drop in oestrogen levels can also lead to osteoporosis – lower bone density, making bones fragile and more likely to fracture or break.

Another thing that can happen when you hit the menopause is that your skin may change, at times making it nigh on impossible to apply makeup, something which is difficult in any case if you are trying to do so whilst having a hot flush!

A range of experiences

In the same way that women will have a range of experience with their periods, women will have different experiences of menopause, with some barely noticing and sailing through their menopause and others feeling completely overwhelmed due to the impact on their lives of the various symptoms.  Some women may be experiencing some or all of the symptoms listed above but won’t necessarily link them to the menopause as they may still be having regular periods. It’s important that women struggling with symptoms visit their GPs to seek help in dealing with the impact of those symptoms.  Speaking to other women who are or have gone through menopause may also help to develop coping strategies for menopausal symptoms.  

The menopause is a natural life event and not a medical condition and given that from time immemorial women have been going through menopause it’s a wonder that there is still a general lack of awareness about it in the workplace, with relatively few organisations supporting female workers who are experiencing symptoms.  

As a knock-on effect of having a suite of symptoms women may also find their work impacted as they deal with a lack of sleep, mood swings, hot flushes, memory loss and problems concentrating, or any of the other menopausal symptoms.  The very fact that they are recognised as being “of a certain age” and/or going through menopause may lead to a change in opinion about them from colleagues, which could in itself be discriminatory. 

Documented isms

Some years ago, I was preparing for an Employment Tribunal case where my client had to disclose the contents of the 50-something female claimant’s personnel file.  While reading through the personnel file, I found the emailed comment made by one of her female managers to another that the claimant was at the age where she was “probably menopausal” and therefore “bouncing off the walls”.  Sadly, this was how a female employee’s younger manager was describing what was, when it came down to it, an assertion of her rights in the workplace.  Despite being a woman herself the manager was displaying gendered ageism – sexism and ageism, in one fell swoop.  

It was a highly inappropriate and discriminatory comment and not something that should ever have found its way into a written document or onto a personnel file.  As it was, I couldn’t remove the email from the file and it had to be disclosed.  I gave advice about the email, but it would have served the author right if her disrespectful email had given rise to a complaint of discrimination.  This is just one example of how women of a certain age can be perceived in the workplace.

Menopause and the impact on working women

The impact of menopause on working women and those who have left the work force was significant enough for the UK government to have commissioned a report published in July 2017 on The effects of menopause transition on women’s economic participation in the UK.  

The report, which makes sobering reading, found that the average age of natural menopause in industrialised countries is 51, so more and more working women than ever before will experience what is referred to in the report as the menopause transition (ie perimenopause), or the period in women’s lives when they are moving towards the menopause, when their menstrual cycles stop permanently.

The report states: 

“… Negative impacts of symptoms on economic participation identified in the evidence base include lower productivity, reduced job satisfaction and problems with time management.  Estimates vary as to the number of women experiencing symptoms of menopause transition which affect them negatively at work.  Different conclusions are also drawn about the negative effects of symptoms on work, and the extent of the difficulties women experience in the workplace is not always reported…”

The government’s report speaks of the physical and psychological symptoms that women may experience when going through menopause; psychological symptoms, including some of those already cited of, depression and anxiety, irritability and mood swings, loss of confidence and difficulty in concentrating or memory problems.  Oh, what joy!  What is a gal to do?P

It is important for women going through the menopause to pay or continue to pay attention to their physical and mental wellbeing, which is not always easy when the symptoms you are experiencing make you feel like your get up and go, got up and went.  Or you are feeling out of sorts because you woke in a cold sweat any number of times during the night and are now frazzled from a lack of sleep.  Or you get out of bed after what you felt was a good night’s rest only find as your feet hit the floor that you are actually stiff and achy.  Or you feel like you are just losing your mind!  C’mon Mother Nature, NOT FAIR!  

A healthy diet, reducing alcohol intake, cutting out smoking, rest and regular exercise can assist in countering the impact of menopausal symptom, as can any number of prescribed, over the counter, homeopathic or herbal treatments.  Some women, opt for hormone replacement therapy(HRT) which can result in the return of their va-va-voom and the reduction or cessation of menopausal symptoms, but can also come with its own side effects.  Women should see their GPs who can advise on treatment options for managing symptoms.  

With the onslaught of menopausal symptoms women of working age will need to be able to manage their transition in the workplace as the impact of symptoms can lead to concern from managers about a woman’s performance, leading to the implementation of the workplace performance management process and monitoring.  

You can find that hot flushes have no sense of occasion and can occur at any time – including when you are in the middle of giving a presentation to a room full of people!  A cocktail of menopausal symptoms can be quite debilitating for some women, leaving them feeling isolated and in some cases leading to absence from work.  In the worst cases some women have given up work.  

Practical changes in a work environment like layering clothes, wearing breathable natural fabrics for working wear, turning up the aircon if you are able, getting a desk fan and/or moving your workstation to a location in the office where there is more natural ventilation can help.  Those with extreme symptoms may also need to think about flexible working, or a reduction in working hours 

It can be difficult for women experiencing menopause and struggling with the symptoms to have a conversation with their employer about the impact that the symptoms are having, particularly if those bosses are younger and/or male with a lack of awareness about this stage in a woman’s life.  Some employers will get it completely, due to their own experience of having gone through the menopause themselves, or their wives or partners’ experience of menopause. Others will be oblivious about symptoms and the mention of menopause will elicit a blank look, or one of terror such as when a female employee mentions, “women’s problems”.  As the BBC has said, employers need to ‘normalise’ menopause in the workplace.

Raising awareness

So how do you start the conversation about menopause in your workplace if it has not already taken place? How do you raise awareness of the issue of menopause without it causing your employer to view you differently and subconsciously write you off as being a cranky old woman who is past her prime?     

If there’s no HR manager in your workplace that you can engage with directly you can take the option of slipping onto your manager’s desk a copy of the Faculty of Occupational Medicine’s guidance on menopause and the workplacewhich comes with a helpful infographic (some managers will find pictures easier to follow), at the same time saying to your manager, “Please read this and then let’s have a conversation”.  Leave the documents with them and check in at a later time to have a discussion once they’ve had the opportunity to digest the material.  

Or, you can take the more direct route of scheduling a meeting with your HR manager or line manager, being frank and telling them that you have started your menopause – reminding them that this is a natural stage in life that all women go through, not an illness, but that it does have some symptoms which will need managing. Emphasising that you are still you, and still able and willing to make a valuable contribution in the workplace. I suggest that you leave the manager some reading material, such as that cited above.  

If you are one of a number of women in your work dealing with menopause you could come together collectively to raise the issue with your employer and look at ways of introducing adjustments or policies in the workplace to help.  Would that we could all be like Sex and the City’s Samantha Jones who when giving a speech at a breast cancer benefit and suffering from hot flushes defiantly whips off her wig in frustration, leading to other women in the room standing to their feet in solidarity to do the same!   

If, having raised the issue of menopause with your employer you feel that you are being sidelined and/or treated less favourably, then you could be suffering discrimination and you will need to speak to your union or seek help from an employment law adviser.  Menopause is not a disability in itself, but the symptoms, if significant and prolonged may be covered by the Equality Act 2010 as being a disability which requires reasonable adjustments in the workplace.  The failure on an employer’s part to make reasonable adjustments may amount to discrimination.  Any less favourable treatment as a result of those symptoms may also be covered by the act as sex discrimination.

If you feel unable to raise the issue of menopause at all with your employer, you may be left with having to manage your symptoms with no support or adjustments made for you in your working life and this can feel isolating.  Know this, you are not alone, there are many other women going through menopause who can offer help and support.  There are also a growing number of websites and resources where you can find advice about managing your symptoms.  This too will pass.  

And yes, I would come back as a woman!  

USEFUL LINKS:  

  1. GOV.UK report on Menopause transition: effects on women’s economic participation  
  • My Menopause Doctor: Dr Louise Newson’s brilliant resource for anyone wanting to know more about the menopause.
  • ITV Central‘s Facebook Live Q&A on the menopause with Dr Louise Newson and Genelle Aldred
  • Menopause and Me website dedicated to supporting women throughout their menopause journey

This article does not constitute HR or employment law advice. If you require help please contact an appropriate qualified professional or drop me (Dawn H Jones) an email – dawn@hopeplace.co.uk

Dawn Martin is an employment lawyer


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