At work, I was a machine. Well, OK, not an actual machine, but I was reliable, dependable, always on the ball, full of ideas and a bit of a ‘go-to’ person for tricky projects or issues. I thrived on the excitement of deadlines and would happily put in the graft and the hours to ‘get shit done’.
When perimenopause hit me, I felt like I had lost myself. It took a little while to come to terms with being in perimenopause, purely because I had no idea what it was or that I was in it. All I knew was how I felt, and when it came to my workplace and performance, I didn’t feel great at all … still don’t if I’m totally honest.
My clock-work menstrual cycle has been replaced with erratic periods. Some will last a day or two and barely register, some will be so heavy that nothing can stop the flow and I consider staying in a bath for 3 days. They can arrive every 2 weeks or wait 6-8 weeks. I have no idea when they will arrive and how bad it will be.
Add in the crippling anxiety, brain fog, lack of confidence and a mood so low some days that I really don’t want to mix with anyone. My colleagues could tell that something was up, but what really hurt was that not one person asked me if I was OK. Not a single one.
Eventually I had a little bit of a meltdown – I was keeping this all to myself and trying to pretend nothing was wrong. At the same time I was absolutely paranoid that I was being judged on my performance at work. I knew I needed to say something, but I didn’t know how or what to say.
I plucked up the courage to call my manager, as I was not brave enough to do this conversation face to face. My anxiety soared again – she is younger than me, she’ll have no idea about perimenopause, she’ll think I’m being over dramatic, she will show no sympathy, she will probably start the ball rolling with HR to get me moved to another team or ‘managed out’ of the business.
I was in a state before she even picked up the call. I took a deep breath, burst into tears and told her everything. She responded with silence. That threw me. Being on the phone I could not see her, so assumed the worst. Totally stupid thing to do. Her silence was her taking it all in and processing my verbal perimenopausal news vomit.
Then she spoke, which made me cry again. Her silence was actually surprise, shock and concern. She had no idea how I was feeling, because I’d been struggling alone and not telling anyone what was going on. But that’s my problem – I might be this vivacious, confident person at work, but I’m also calm, considered and private. My bombshell left her shocked and unprepared … but only for a moment.
The first thing she said was ‘what do you need from me?’ I hadn’t expected that at all. I had some time off booked in a couple of weeks so asked if I could work from home until then, keep my head down and come to terms with things. She agreed. I cried again. I’d done it. I’d finally told my manager. The relief was overwhelming.
For the next few weeks I got on with my work, covered my home office in post-it notes and to-do lists and eventually even enjoyed my holiday. But I started to feel low again as I dreaded working with the team again. I knew I had to do something about that, and decided to tell them all about how I was feeling. I work with a team of men and women, mostly younger than me, so felt really anxious about suddenly telling them something so personal.
I sent out an email to them all, apologising for my behaviour over recent months. Looking back I now get really angry with myself that I actually apologised to people for being in perimenopause! In my email I explained why I might have not appeared myself recently, explained I was in perimenopause and let them know how it sometimes means I’m not performing like I always used to at work.
The responses were really surprising – there were two types of reactions. A male colleague who usually barely acknowledges me, now talks to me on a regular basis – his wife is going through exactly the same issues as me. A younger woman who sits next to me in the office asked me lots of questions as she was totally unaware of perimenopause and while sympathetic, she also wanted to know more about it.
But there was a bad reaction. I had one colleague who doesn’t do sympathy, not that I was actually looking for any. I just wanted a bit of compassion and understanding. If I had come into the office with my leg in plaster, she would have been a mother-hen, recommending pain killers, made sure I was comfortable and probably drawing rude pictures on the cast. She now barely speaks to me. Another colleague requested I did not talk about perimenopause at work because it made her feel uncomfortable. Well I can’t wait to see how your hormones deal with all this, Sister!
Menopause has an uncomfortable stigma associated with it. Menopause is complicated. Menopause is embarrassing. Menopause is brushed under the carpet. Well this has to stop! With a little bit of support, I have been able to finally understand what is happening to me. By being able to finally understand my symptoms and ways to manage them, I’ve been able to get my home and work life back on track.
But there is so much more that can be done in the workplace. The symptoms us women suffer are harsh and unpredictable – many women find it so hard to cope they leave their jobs, walking away from hard-earned careers, and that’s not good at all.
Employers should know the facts and seek to understand menopause
With the average age of a woman going through menopause being 51, it can also be earlier. Perimenopause symptoms start years before this – mine started when I was around 44. I’m not special – 3 out of 4 women will experience perimenopausal symptoms, with 1 in 4 of us finding them more serious or debilitating.
According to one study, as many as 8 out of 10 menopausal women are in work. As we all need to work longer before we retire, the age of women in the workplace is going to get older. What makes it complicated is that us women will all have different symptoms and line managers are not trained to deal with us. They don’t need to be medical experts in menopause any more than they are in dentistry, or ophthalmics, but they do need to feel prepared, have a good level of understanding and feel confident to have any meaningful conversations with their teams.
It’s all about equality … isn’t it?
I have spent years during my career supporting women who have children, covering their roles for them while they are on maternity leave, taking on extra work for no reward while they do reduced hours. Women are protected at work when it comes to having children, returning to work and parental leave.
But what about my rights? Who supports me? Employers really need to consider implementing a menopause policy at work. Women should be able to talk to their mangers or HR and know that working arrangements can be temporarily amended to suit our needs. This is a transition, after all. It’s not forever.
Us women need to know that it’s OK to leave work if we are feeling unwell with our symptoms. Some us will need more frequent or extended toilet breaks as we deal with heavy or unexpected periods, or just need a couple of extra breaks during the day now and then. We need flexibility.
A menopause policy should be in place, supported with it’s own risk assessment and welfare review to ensure the environment we work in does not make our symptoms worse. This can be as simple as looking at heating, ventilation, toilet facilities and drinking water.
We aren’t asking for Chris Hemsworth to stand next to our desks waving a fan and gently mopping our sweaty faces (might mention that to my manager, though). Us women are going through a temporary, natural process and all employers need to do is offer support and make us feel valued.
How offensive, obstructive and embarrassing is my menopause for you? Let’s get some perspective!
My perimenopause symptoms suck most of the time and I can struggle to get through some days with a smile on my face. I don’t want anything from you. I don’t want your time. I don’t want special treatment.
I have one colleague who still laughs at her ‘baby brain’. While she was pregnant, and to be fair, for a while after she came back to work, she was scatty and forgetful. It makes me angry that this is met with giggles and smiles in the office, especially when the very same hormones play tricks on me and my forgetfulness is instead met with rolling eyes, my stumbled words with irritation.
Why am I treated differently? Why does my meno-fog annoy you? Why is my hot flush so offensive? My perimenopause symptoms are sometimes very similar to your pregnancy symptoms. Is the lack of a neat bump and my apparent barrenness scary for you?
Depression and suicide rates in menopausal women are high. Did you know that? Some women experience such a decline in their mental health during menopause, they consider or succeed in taking their own lives. The Samaritans noticed back in 2018 that women aged between 45 to 49 who were taking their own lives had risen 10.2% on the previous year.
You’ll know of a woman who is suffering, or you may be suffering yourself. Sadly I know a woman who tragically took her own life in her early 50s – this was 20 years ago. Perimenopause and menopause is not new. The symptoms are not new. What is new is our focus and we must learn to support ourselves and each other. Suicide should never be an option.
So what can employers put in place to support women like me?
What support do we need? Unspoken support. No fuss support. Flexible support. Just a bit of compassion. I just want this workplace taboo to be normalised. Wouldn’t it be great if us women could talk about perimenopause as openly as root canals – after all, both of those topics currently make most people flinch.
Most employers, when they think about it, already have the flexibility in place that us women ‘of a certain age’ need. From flexible working to time off during the day and even desk fans (HR budgets won’t get you Chris Hemsworth), most policies already include the reasonable adjustments we need. They just need some gentle tweaking and all of a sudden you’ll have the backbone of a Menopause Policy in your workplace.
Combined with training, guidance for managers and an environment where we all feel comfortable having conversations, we can create the right environment and workplace culture. Us women have plenty of years left in us after menopause and will continue to be a valued member of the team.
And let’s not forget the men in all of this, too. They are just as worried about the conversations at work or may be struggling to support their partners through the same transition at home. By being more open, it can be a win-win for all.
In a time where we are all trying to be equal and inclusive, let’s not forget to include menopausal women as we look to support everyone in the workplace. We should never be ashamed to be menopausal.