Our guide to menopause and work, including practical tips for coping, what to expect from employers, and why you shouldn’t suffer in silence…
One of the topics that crops up most frequently in the Live Better With Menopause Community and in our Facebook group, and always generates a long thread of comments, is coping with the menopause at work. If our members are anything to go by, far too many women are struggling with menopausal symptoms at work and are not getting the support they need from employers, managers or colleagues.
We decided to take a look at the sort of problems women going through menopause are facing at work, what has helped them, and what to expect from employers.
Menopausal symptoms at work
There are an estimated three and a half million of menopausal age in the UK – that’s over five times the number of women who give birth each year. Three quarters of women in the menopausal age group work and, while not all of them will be adversely affected by menopausal symptoms, a substantial number are.
While much depends on the hours you work and the type of work you do – sedentary office work will affect you very differently from, say, a job where you are on your feet all day, or one where you are outdoors for much of the time.
Do you have to wear a uniform? Does your job involve a lot of driving? Do you do shift work? Do you have access to a rest room and a constant supply of fresh drinking water? Are you able to take the toilet breaks that you need? (We heard about one well-known clothing retailer where employees, most of whom are women, are not allowed to leave the shop floor, even for a toilet break, for hours at a time – so they deliberately drink less than they should throughout the day, to avoid breaking the rules.)
Our community members work in a wide range of jobs and industries, from care workers to senior management, from the retail sector to education. Some work for small local firms, others for large corporations; some are self-employed, and some work from home. But whatever their job, whatever their hours, they are all trying to do their best, while coping with the menopause.
The symptoms that seem to create the greatest problems at work for our community members are:
- mood swings, depression and irritability (‘This year my symptoms have been the worst . . . and it’s affecting my work.’)
- fatigue (‘I just feel so tired . . . I feel like I can’t work a five-day week.’
- forgetfulness (‘How can you hold down a job when your brain lets you down constantly?’)
- anxiety and panic attacks (’Just had a week’s holiday from work. I am so anxious about going back.)
- fluctuating temperature and hot flushes (‘ . . . feeling hot and bothered . . . I’m also irritable.’)
While some members have sympathetic and supportive employers, that isn’t the case for everyone and the difference is stark.
The lack of understanding or support that women can experience can come in the form of patronising attitudes, disbelief and bullying; obscene language; written warnings and threats of disciplinary procedures, withheld pay or even dismissal. The fear of losing their job and income is a major concern, particularly for single women, for women such as lone parents, who are the main or sole breadwinners, and for women who have other health issues to contend with as well as menopausal symptoms.
This type of stress can lead to a vicious circle, making troublesome menopausal symptoms even more severe.
Coping with the menopause in the workplace
When it comes to menopause, there’s strength in numbers. Despite their often adverse experiences, many community members say that being able to share their views and personal stories with each other is a great help and enables them to feel less alone.
Not only that, if one member is struggling with a particular symptom or difficult situation at work, other members who have found something that helps will happily share details or give practical advice. For example, a member who was dealing with constant exhaustion – to the point of falling asleep at work – was eventually diagnosed with Vitamin B12 deficiency and prescribed appropriate treatment. A B12 or B-complex supplement can make all the difference.
Other suggestions to ease specific symptoms include:
- Start the working day with a ‘to do’ list to keep you focused and cope with forgetfulness
- Try deep breathing exercises to cope with anxiety (and try also yoga or Tai Chi)
- Listening to podcasts such as this one can help with moods and tearfulness
- Drink chamomile tea at night for a deep, refreshing sleep
- Use coolin products for hot flushes and feeling hot and bothered – such as a cooling spray, special menopausal scarves or neck wraps, a handheld or desktop fan, and a lunchtime walk in the fresh air
…and try supplements for general menopausal symptoms: such as Promensil, which is high in natural plant oestrogens.
(NB If you think that a supplement could help you, we recommend that you consult your GP or other qualified healthcare professional first, to see if it is suitable and for advice on strength and dosage.)
Practical support at work
As several members point out, employers have a responsibility for the health and safety of all their staff. A landmark case in 2012 made it clear that the Equality Act covers women who are experiencing difficult menopausal symptoms that affect their work.
Community members stressed the importance of discussing the way that the menopause is affecting you at work with your HR or occupational health department – if your employer has one. But not everyone will have access to this type of department, for example, if you work for a small firm. And some members have found it almost impossible to discuss their symptoms with line managers or work colleagues, especially if they work in predominantly young or male workplaces.
If this sounds familiar, we recommend this excellent guidance on menopause and the workplace, produced by the Faculty of Occupational Medicine of the Royal College of Physicians. It’s completely free, sets out what the law requires, and outlines practical, often simple, steps that employers can take to support women staff who are going through menopause. It could well be a helpful starting point for a discussion with your employer, so why not print a copy today and take it to work with you?
While legal recognition makes a significant difference, it goes hand in hand with raising awareness and that will help not just the current generation of women going through menopause but future generations too. As one of our community members says, ‘Let’s hope it changes in the future, for our daughters.’
Visit our Live Better With Menopause Community Forum for information, advice, and tips, and to share your own stories, questions and suggestions.