Why It Helps Us All to Talk About the Menopause at Work
Tips on how to discuss the physical and emotional impact without embarrassment.
Posted Jun 17, 2018
Before you decide this article isn’t relevant to you, let me kick off by saying, it is! You may not realize it, but the menopause matters to everyone, and whether you’re male or female, 21 or 51, it’s worth spending five minutes reading on, especially if you work closely alongside others. After all, the menopause has an impact on half the workforce and with 3.5 million working women over 50 in the UK, it’s very likely having ramifications in your workplace right now.
Although the cessation of menstruation is a natural occurrence, the ‘menopause’ is still, by and large, a taboo subject. ‘Surely not,’ you might say. ‘People are much more open these days and it’s always on the radio and TV!’ But I’d argue it’s not so simple; when we do discuss it, we often ‘medicalize’ it – we talk about ‘symptoms’, as if it were an illness, or we joke about it to avoid taking it seriously. Imagine if you were a menopausal woman, how confident would you feel discussing the impact of your menopause with your younger, male manager? The answer may well be, ‘not very.’
The situation is often muddied because changing hormones can impact women in such a myriad of different ways; some get migraines, others become anxious or depressed, some may experience memory loss or tingling in their fingers and toes. And a lucky minority feel almost no discomfort. Yet even though 75% of women experience hot flushes or night sweats, a recent BBC survey established that a large majority - 70% - do not make their employers aware that they are suffering.
Obviously most women don’t tell their employers every time they feel a little out of sorts, but what we’re talking about here is potentially more damaging.
41% of menopausal women say their symptoms are affecting their ability to do their job.
And whilst the average age for the menopause in the US and UK is 51, some women go through it much earlier as a result of surgery, premature ovarian failure and treatments such as chemotherapy or radiation. For these women the emotional and physical impact is often more intense because they’re suddenly thrust into the menopause, and yet for all these women, there is a widespread lack of support in the workplace.
Many firms are in danger of losing some of their most experienced and highly qualified women without realizing the true reason, or what they, as employers, could do to retain them.
This is why talking about the menopause matters. Normalizing conversation about the menopause reduces an individual’s sense of isolation and having to suffer in silence, which can go a long way to lift mood and boost mental well-being. You could also read up on the subject or even order copies of my book to give to any employees who’d like it! (Creative Pumpkin Publishing offers trade discounts for bulk orders, so it’s not a totally daft idea.)
Meanwhile, if you’re an employee, how should you approach talking to your boss or HR department?
1. Book a time. Arranging a meeting means you’ll have time and ideally a private office to talk and it will be much easier to explain everything in the right way.
2. Keep a diary of your menopause symptoms and how they’re affecting you.
3. Prepare what to say. Rehearse ahead so that when you chat, the words feel and sound natural. It often helps to run through the conversation with a friend.
4. Aim to explain your situation clearly. Talk about what’s happening and how it’s affecting your work. If you’re suffering from flushes, for example, is it embarrassing you and preventing you from speaking up in meetings? Or do night sweats mean you’re not sleeping so you’re tired and it’s taking you longer to make decisions or complete tasks?
5. Offer a solution. Think about how your circumstances could be improved and suggest practical, reasonable adjustments. If poor sleep is an issue, could you work from home or come into work later on some days? If you’re suffering from hot flushes, could your desk be moved close to a window that you can open or an air conditioning unit? Could your employer get you a fan? Be flexible and put forward different ideas. If these might only be needed for a short period of time while you work with your doctor to alleviate your symptoms, it might help to say so. Though don’t make false promises, or you’ll find your colleagues whack the heating up after a couple of days thinking you’re through the worst!
6. Follow up. Don’t expect an answer there and then – whilst your symptoms may have been bothering you for a while, it is probably the first time your employer has heard about it. Allow him or her time to digest the information and at the end of the meeting put a time in the diary to meet again.
Above all, remember the menopause is not your enemy, or anyone else’s, it’s a natural life event that we could all do well to befriend.
Making Friends with the Menopause is out now on Amazon worldwide, in digital and paperback format. Please join our group on Facebook if you'd like confidential peer support.