Why is the menopause seen as so repulsive in the workplace?

Five years ago, aged 43, I started to notice that my Premenstrual Tension (PMT) was much worse.  

Every month I ached all over for a few days, and I slept appallingly, as well as finding my concentration was deteriorating.  

Three years later, anxiety was added into the mix – I had two episodes lasting around 10 days each, along with my usual PMT. Having never experienced anything like it, I was staggered.  

I even – temporarily, thank goodness – lost a lot of confidence in my ability to do my job, waking up at night worrying about deadlines, and rechecking facts that I knew were correct, as well as having a heavy feeling of impending fear the entire time.   

However, my personal experience of menopause at work isn’t exactly textbook, and it’s also incredibly fortunate. Thankfully, I mentioned these feelings to my running friends, one of whom is Mariella Frostrup, co-author of our book Cracking the Menopause, and another is – helpfully – a nurse with a speciality in menopause. They recommended that I see my GP and highlight these clearly (to them) perimenopausal symptoms.

It still seems slightly extraordinary that I hadn’t already done so. I had written about menopause previously and was vaguely aware that my symptoms were probably to do with fluctuating hormones.

But like many women I just got on with it. It wasn’t affecting my ability to do my job exactly, but it was certainly making it more stressful! 

My GP immediately offered me the option of Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT), which I accepted eagerly and was amazed by the rapid difference it made.

The best way to describe it is that I felt like myself again; my anxiety went, I was less stressed about work, and generally far more relaxed (yelling at the kids to get ready for school didn’t change, I’m afraid).

My previous research meant that I was familiar with HRT and the benefits it might have, both short and long term. I see it as a sensible way of replenishing diminishing hormones. Yet there is still unnecessary fear and controversy around the subject.

We spoke to many women who ‘just got on with it’ – struggling, but not feeling that they could speak up, for fear of being seen as unprofessional

Overall, my experience is what all women should have; talking about menopause freely and a GP who offered the right solution for me.

Other friends weren’t so fortunate in finding a menopause/work-life balance; one told me about the agony of suffering multiple hot flushes and trying to pretend nothing was happening in her – mostly male – office environment. Another ended up going part-time because she was so exhausted from disturbed nights. 

Menopause itself is just one moment, which occurs 12 months after your last period. But there is so much more to it; symptoms are likely to start in your early to mid-forties, during perimenopause, when hormones start to fluctuate and may last for years. 

There are said to be 34 symptoms, which can include sleeplessness, anxiety, aching joints, night sweats, hot flushes and headaches – 80% of women have some.

Half the population goes through menopause, so it’s extraordinary that for so long it’s been treated as repulsive, irrelevant or a bit of a joke – but that’s been the experience of many women, and especially in the workplace.

Here, we’re often embarrassed and worried that we’ll be seen as less able to do our jobs. I can certainly relate to this – but if anything, I think we overcompensate by working harder.

According to a 2020 Ipsos Mori poll, almost half of working women between the age of 40 and 65 have experienced three or more menopausal symptoms while working, and a 2019 survey of menopausal women revealed that 76% of their workplaces weren’t offering any support; such as acknowledgement that menopause can impact our lives or practical solutions.

These can come in the form of training line managers, fans in offices, proximity to loos and water and consideration of any uniform worn. Some women may need a little flexibility around working hours.

Menopause symptoms to look out for:

  • Changes to your periods
  • Hot flushes
  • Night sweats
  • Change in libido
  • Headaches

For more information on symptoms, and how to seek help, visit the menopause overview page from the NHS.

There’s plenty of sexism and ageism around too, with some still believing that women in mid-life are somehow past it. And don’t get me started on the pay and power gap. During our research we discovered that in the 350 biggest British PLCs only 5% of firms are led by female CEOs. 

In February 2020 Mariella and I went to an excellent menopause seminar and watched aghast as intelligent, professional, confident women talked about their ignorance of the subject. That was the night we decided to write a book about it. 

We spoke to many women who ‘just got on with it’ – struggling, but not feeling that they could speak up, for fear of being seen as unprofessional.

My very low key experience was an insight into how mentally and physically draining menopausal symptoms can be.  

Thankfully, over the last few years, there’s been a great of campaigning around menopause in the workplace in the UK. There are many voices calling out for women to be recognised and supported. 

For example, menopause educator Deborah Garlick has launched Menopause Friendly Accreditation, which has been eagerly embraced by such large organisations as Santander and Sainsbury’s Group. MP Carolyn Harris, co-chair of the new Government Menopause Taskforce, has said they will look at guidance and support for employers to better protect menopausal women from discrimination at work. 

There needs to be specific legislation around menopause in the workplace. This inevitable part of our biological journey needs acknowledging and support given, should we need it. There are laws giving protection to those with long term conditions, both mental and physical, and of course to pregnant women. We are covered by the Equality Act, but let’s have one of our own! 

The menopausal years are by no means all bad. They are also those in which women often become more ambitious and driven, something that we explore in the book. As the hormones which make us nurture babies deplete, and many of us aren’t needed by young families, we may look to new challenges. I know that’s my experience – writing a book was the achievement of a lifetime!

While we’re taking steps – strides, even – in the right direction, we still have far to go. 

Cracking the Menopause, by Mariella Frostrup and Alice Smellie, is available to buy now (£20, Bluebird).

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