Work and the menopause
According to the Department of Work and Pensions (2015), the proportion of women between 50 and 64 who are in work is at its highest level ever – 64.2 per cent. Thus many women go through the menopause while working full-time or part-time. Menopausal symptoms such as hot flushes, changes to periods, mood swings and poor memory are often at odds with the self-confident professional image which women want to convey. Women told us how menopausal symptoms affected their work and their relationships with colleagues, and how workplaces were responding to their needs.
Rachel felt she was losing her grip at work. She struggled to complete projects because of her...
From a work point of view I was finding it a struggle, not day to day process but if I have a specific project that was on board that needed to be completed within a time scale or I needed to gather information, I felt lethargic. I felt that I wasn’t being assertive and I felt that I was like losing my ability to think things through. That definitely affected me, that side I noticed and that’s when I said, “Well what’s happening here, why is this affecting me?” Well it’s affecting your brain isn’t it really, and you feel incapable like I couldn’t function. I wasn’t functioning as well as I should be and obviously you don’t want your employers to think that they’ve assigned you a piece of a piece of work and you’re not able to do it. But with serious concentration and time I mean I was able to complete whatever it was that I was doing or had to do but I felt it a struggle. I felt that I was losing my grip.
And with your work colleagues, any change in the way you related to them?
With my work colleagues I felt that what people spotted in me was how quiet I became, not that I was always chatting a lot in the office but for a period I said very little. I contributed not very much to general conversation and I always had done and I don’t know whether or not I was becoming a little bit withdrawn.
Menopausal symptoms and work
In a public environment where presentation matters, women sometimes feel exposed by their inability to conceal the often unpredictable, unpleasant and highly visible physical symptoms of the menopause. Hot flushes and sweats, for example, are not only an obvious sign of the menopause, but can make women feel acutely self-conscious, particularly when working with younger staff members, male colleagues or clients (see ‘Hot flushes and sweats’). Office layouts, workplace rules and practices are rarely designed with the menopausal woman in mind. Wearing a compulsory uniform at work can pose difficulties, with one woman describing how she risked a ‘row with her boss’ if she took her tie off at work when having a hot flush. Another, sharing an office with nine people, found opening a window caused resentment.
Sonia, a union rep, feels self-conscious about her rosy face in meetings
Hot flushes, kind of not so much but occasionally they were happening whilst I was working and at home. Especially at work if I was in a meeting or something because I’m a union rep, so I have to attend meetings at different times during my course of work. So I’d be in a meeting and all of a sudden I would just have a hot flush for no apparent reason. So that became a bit of a problem.
I would just all of a sudden be in a situation, like I said mainly when I was in meetings or whatever usually close proximity with somebody. And I could just feel myself building up, from my stomach coming up and then all of a sudden I’d have this rosy face. And it would stay there for twenty minutes or so afterwards, I’d come out of the meeting and I’d just be sat there and I’d be thinking, “God, how can I cool down?”
Were you aware of it in the meeting. Did you feel it come?
I could feel it, yeah, I could feel it and I was aware that other people could see it as well because I would go in, in front of them and I’d be quite normal and then all of a sudden this would build up and it was like it was quite embarrassing. And in other social situations as well when I was around other people, friends and stuff.
Did anybody say anything?
No, they would just sort of comment say, “Oh, you’ve got a red face” and I’d just say, “Yeah, I just feel a bit hot.” Just start waving my hands.
For women in jobs where they have to stand all day or do physical training the unpredictability of periods can be very difficult. Heavy bleeding and pain can cause discomfort and potential embarrassment. One woman, working in retail, found it hard to leave the checkout to go to the toilet when she had an unexpected period (see ‘Changes in periods’).
Barbaras heavy periods were incompatible with life as an army officer
It’s just part and parcel of life and you’ve just got to get on with it. But for me I found it quite hard because I was with guys and I was having to still march eight miles with a pack on my back and do a basic fitness test of running three miles in a certain period of time although I got a bit longer because I was a woman and because I was older. But every month it was a complete struggle and I had to time everything. Anything I was doing I had to think about what time of the month is it, am I going to have a period then or not. And it got to such where I didn’t know when I was going to have a period and how bad it was going to be. I can remember one day and I was doing before the run you have to some exercises which are sit ups and press ups and I was doing the sit ups and you have a guy holding your feet and I did the sit ups and I got up and of course there was blood underneath. And I thought ahh. And it’s an embarrassment but of course I’d still got to do the run.
So a lot of it meant that I was out in the field and it’s just not the most convenient of places to
How did you deal with it all?
You used a spade and that was it. There’s no toilets or anything and you’ve got to make sure you’ve got everything with you and because I was flooding all the time I used to make sure I’d take my knickers but I’d have my Tampax and I’d have some towels with me because I thought that if I’m going to be out for so long I may not be able to go, I might start leaking and I don’t want it to come through my trousers and you’ve got to live in those trousers for the next week.
So do you feel it affected your career in any way?
In the early days no but I would say in the last five years definitely. Definitely. I mean I left the Army because I thought the Army changed a lot in thirty years but I mean as I say one of my last tours was with an Infantry Battalion and I was still expected physically to do the same as the men. Well, I mean I was over 40 then and to go out on an eight mile march, I was the oldest woman in the battalion of six hundred people but I was expected to keep up at the same rate. Well, physically any person over 40 is going to find it harder than a 20 year old but as a woman dealing with changing life and changing hormones it was even more so and I thought “This is time for me to leave, I can’t keep up with these people”. And in the Army you have to carry on doing all the fitness until you’re 50. So I think for a lot of women there’s not many women staying till that age.
Alongside physical symptoms, women talked about how forgetfulness, poor concentration, mood swings and tiredness undermined their confidence, authority and ability to function effectively in the workplace (see ‘Memory and concentration’, ‘Emotions: mood swings, anxiety and depression’ and ‘Sleep’).
Christinas administrative role involves managing her boss workload as well as her own. Lack of...
So what impact do you think all that has on your work?
It does because you’re not focused, and you’re going in and your brain can be going all over the place and I’m trying to juggle seven different things i.e. today and I’m thinking, “Which one do I start first?” And it’s trying to put those in an order where I need to do this first, this is urgent and everything else can follow on behind but then I’ve got a boss who will want three things urgently in the same moment and it’s trying to juggle that as well. And all you want to say is, “Give me ten minutes on my own with no phones or anything else so I can focus on what I’m doing.” But the phones are going, you’ve got people in the office and everything else so it’s tiring.
Women in senior positions frequently felt that their ability to be in control, make decisions and act as a role model for staff deserted them during the menopause. One woman’s anxiety and loss of confidence and assertiveness made her ‘question every aspect’ of her work. Even though performance appraisals may be excellent, women can become acutely self-conscious, doubting their ability to do their job well. The stress of dealing with staff while feeling ‘tired, emotional and unworthy’ can be exhausting; some women described losing patience and empathy.
Susan felt paranoid that she was no longer doing her job well. She feared she would be caught out
My biggest thing was the loss of confidence, the loss of self-esteem, the loss of putting myself out there. Up until then I would have been a confident, out and about kind of person doing talks, going to meetings, all of that. I completely lost my confidence with the result that I very much retreated in back to the centre here, much happier to work on books, planning systems, working within the centre. I certainly stopped being out there. Going to meetings I felt awkward, lacked confidence and I felt that as a representative of the organisation I was letting it down in some ways. That paranoia, stupid jealousies sometimes, every kind of emotion you can think of was exaggerated. The impact on work then was probably I didn’t feel I was doing the job. I felt, “I’m going to be caught out. I’m not doing this job as well.” A lack of belief in my own ability, so looking for reassurance all the time and wanting to be reassured that I was doing, that I was okay, that I’m doing the job all right. That kind of, paranoia is the word for it, that not saying that people are talking about you, it’s not that sort of thing but that you’re going to be found out that you’re not doing your job properly or you’re going to be found out that you’re not the great person you thought they think you are.
Relationships with work colleagues
Women talked about being misunderstood by younger colleagues and male co-workers. Middle-aged women were sometimes unnecessarily branded as ‘hysterical’ or typecast as ‘PMTish or menopausalish’ once they were over 40. In male-dominated workplaces, such as the police and the army, women were reluctant to discuss symptoms or to seek support, for fear of seeming weaker than male colleagues. They wanted to be treated ‘the same as the guys’. The trouble with this approach is that the menopause remains hidden and women can feel isolated with no one to talk to. Men often referred to ‘women’s problems’, and made jokes because they felt embarrassed.
Marias male colleagues joke about the menopause. She laughs but deep down feels upset
How do the men at work respond to all this?
Oh. Don’t ask. They make a bit of a thing about it, “Oh, here Maria goes again. She’s flushing.” They joke, joke, joke, joke. Whatever joke they can think of they’ll say it and I don’t know if it’s because they don’t understand or if it’s because they just don’t care. I don’t know but many of the men they will just laugh about it. I don’t know one that’s considerate really about the situation. They just laugh and joke about it.
How does that make you feel?
I’m thick skinned. It doesn’t bother me. I deal with things my way. Sticks and stones, it doesn’t bother me but there are people that it does bother, and I’ll try and defend them. And I do try to explain to these guys but they don’t want to know. They’re not interested. It’s just a joke, you get your blonde jokes, you get your menopause jokes. They have these jokes and they just think it’s funny so me personally it doesn’t bother me.
Why do you think there are lots of jokes about it?
That’s difficult. I don’t know. I don’t know. I think it’s to hide the embarrassment, to hide the embarrassment you joke about things, you laugh about it but really deep down, you’re upset, you’re sad, you’re emotional and because it’s happening in a public place. So what can you do? Stand there and cry or have a laugh about it. I think that is what a lot of us do do. Because we’re going through that scenario and we feel that people are looking at us and thinking, “Oh, what’s wrong with her?” You’ll joke, “Oh, I’m just having a hot flush.” And laugh about it and then they’ve gone and walked off. They don’t care, and so yeah, I think that’s why people do, just to hide the embarrassment really.
In the workplace, where professional integrity, customer service and good relationships with colleagues are vital, managing impressions, compensating for perceived shortcomings and apologising for inadvertent comments can add to the burden of the menopause. Some women we spoke to felt they had little option but to take HRT or to work part-time (see ‘Hormone replacement therapy (HRT)). Others retreated from situations which might expose their mood swings, irritability and anxiety.
Sharon no longer shares office banter. Shes become more serious at work
I’m very very serious in work, very very serious. Where I’ve noticed other colleagues of mine having a bit of banter about taking the piss out of people or having a laugh and a joke, winding people up yeah, for some reason I’m just work, work, work and even like, my husband and the kids if they make a joke I can’t see that joke anymore. Years ago I could but I can’t anymore. And that is upsetting. Well that hurts that does because then people don’t banter with you or wind you up because they know that you can’t take it anymore.
Have people said anything to you?
Yeah, I’ve been told to “Chill out”, “Calm Down”. It’s not that I’m not good at my job, I am but I’d be so much a nicer person if I was good at my job and able to have a laugh with it, if you can see the meaning. And I know that has changed over the last twelve months.
I was told then to “Chill out” in work today.
Why was that?
Because I wanted to do something, I interrupted somebody when they was talking, because I needed to get that out straight away and there was no need to get it out straight away, I’m interrupting people when they’re talking and it’s not only bad manners, it’s not very professional. And I know I’m doing it, and why am I doing it. And I know I wouldn’t have done it last year.
Joyce decided to use HRT so that she could maintain her 'professional pride' in her work
So yes it did make me stop and think that, well hang on a minute, am I playing a bit of Russian roulette here with my body [by taking HRT], and what’s the impact of that but equally I suppose I thought what the impact of this is having on me mentally. I’m not in a position to give up work and even practically changing my job to something that’s less stressful would be very difficult. I’ve a mortgage to pay, bills to pay. If I were to step out of the job I’m in now because I’m going through the menopause we’re talking a significant change in my lifestyle and more importantly in my future lifestyle because it won’t be many years before I’ll be able to draw a pension so to have to go into a different job where I couldn’t be assured that in fact the stress would be any less, that wasn’t an option.
So I suppose to some extent rightly or wrongly I kind of felt well if I’m going to get through the next couple of years actually I need some help with this. If this is the impact that going through the menopause is going to have on me emotionally and mentally because I suppose I also have quite a high degree of professional pride as anybody would that if you’re known and you have a good reputation and somebody says, “Do you know what, she has lost the plot.” You wouldn’t want that to happen would you particularly if you’re in a senior position and you’re in a position of authority and a position where actually a lot of people not only look up to you but they actually analyse what you say, they take everything you say at face value and if you’re not firing on all cylinders one day and you decide to either make an off the cuff remark or whatever and it comes out wrongly actually that’s what they remember you for not the good things. And I just knew that in the job I’m in, but even if I worked in Starbucks making the coffee and you’re taking someone’s order you’ve got to be able to remember what you’ve just been told and you’ve got to understand instructions so it’s no different because I think I’m in a senior position in my organisation even if I wasn’t I knew that emotionally and mentally I was struggling with some day to day things.
Responding to women’s needs
Yet while women sometimes reported a lack of understanding in the workplace, there were also examples of colleagues and supervisors offering support. One woman described her solidarity with workmates of a similar age; another spoke highly of her previous two bosses, both men, who let her lie down when her periods were bad. One boss helped a woman cope with hot flushes by buying a fan for her desk.
Caroles boss suggested she work part-time when her symptoms started to affect her work
Yeah, where I work there’s only four of us there, one man, his wife and another lady of my age, we’re all about the same age actually, I’m the eldest of them. And yes it’s a small office, it’s not like a big office so if one of you is having a bad day it does rub off on the others. It was a very small sized office as well and my boss said to me, he said, “It’s got to the stage Carole where I’m afraid to ask you, ‘are you alright’, in case you snap at me”. I said, “Oh I’m very sorry about that, I don’t mean to do it, I’m not even aware I’m doing it”. And he said, “I can’t approach you,” he said, “We’re all finding it hard to approach you because you bark at us” and I said, “You know what the problems are. Well I’m stressed in my job, I’m stressed in my job and this is a way of dealing with it. There’s a lot I’ve got to do and I’ve got to do it quickly and I’ve got to do it thoroughly and if it’s not done properly you’re going to ask me why. So I’m sorry if I’m a bit snappy”.
And as I say I was going to leave but then the boss said, “Well, what are you going to do?” he said, “I don’t want to lose you” he said, “You’re a damn good worker”. He said, “This business needs you, you’ve helped me build it up”. I said, “I can’t carry on doing this job”, I said, “What the problems are, I’m going through the menopause, I’m on HRT, I’ve had problems with the job”, and he said, “Well look, can I offer you a part-time job working for us or are you completely fed up with this company?” I said, “No I like working here but I just can’t do that job”. So yes, I mean, working close, I never thought I’d have to go to my manager man and say, “Well sorry I can’t do my job anymore because it’s too stressful and maybe if I wasn’t going through the menopause I probably could do it”.
I mean and going part-time I mean I work Monday, Wednesday and Friday. If I go in on Monday and have a terrible day I haven’t got to go in the next day. Go in Wednesday and have a terrible day, it’s not there everyday, I can take a break from it.
Faced with an ageing workforce, some organisations are starting to acknowledge the effect of the menopause on older women. One woman explained that in the army the menopause is no longer ‘a taboo subject’. Another described how her health and safety officer is ‘getting her workstation sorted’ so she can sit closer to the window.
Recognising the need to set the agenda and educate colleagues, women are starting to talk more openly about their symptoms and about their difficulties in the workplace. Women in some sections of the police service, for example, had helped organise events to raise awareness of the issue; while the British Association for Women in Policing (BAWP) commissioned research to explore the impact of the menopause on the well-being of women police officers (see ‘Resources and information’).
Rhonda helped organise an event on the menopause in her workplace. She hoped it would raise...
Last year here at the [workplace] we ran a Women’s Event which was all around menopause and the health of ladies which I was one of the main organisers of and we had some external speakers come in and talk to us and talk about diet. And we also had a gynaecologist come in and talk about it as well. And it was a very well turned out event and everybody’s got their own story to tell and they’ve all got their own ways of coping with things. So it was a really good way of networking in a funny sort of way. But also we wanted to raise the awareness for our supervisors and managers because I think our male colleagues, unless they have partners themselves that are going through it, I think don’t really understand what it’s always about and making sure that the working environment, do you need a seat by a window, do you need to have a fan on the desk, do you need to take regular breaks to get some fresh air. And it was all about raising the awareness around that as well.
So you had police officers attending as well?
Yes, yes we did yeah. It was mainly turned out by females, we were really encouraging our male colleagues to come along but it was quite difficult, but we did have a few there. But it was mainly well attended by females and what was good to see was it was females of a very young age as well obviously wanting to know.
Carolyn describes how research on the effect of the menopause on women police officers has helped...
And yes I do know that some people have really been struggling and when we had our day, when we actually launched the report that we did that from the research that got done from [name of university], I mean there were some real horror stories came out then and not just police officers but from staff as well and I think some of them perhaps hadn’t realised that this was what they were suffering from. They knew they were being moody, they knew sometimes they found it difficult to cope but they didn’t really understand why. And for some of them it was really good. The light came on and they realised, and then they realised that there was actually something they could do about it as well. And from after we’d had that research done and what have you and carried on and things it crops up now and again and I know, well I’m quite sure that there are some, particularly the more senior women officers, who have struggled and not realised that this is what was causing it.
This progress is promising, but more needs to be done. One woman, working in retail where the majority of staff on the shop floor are female, suggested providing more information and ‘a quiet room where women can potter off to deal with what they’re going through’. A police officer called for a redesign of uniforms and body armour.
Maria has started talking about the menopause at work with her colleagues since agreeing to take...
It’s only recently through speaking to you that especially at work as well, the girls are willing to talk about it more. They want to sit and discuss it and they were a bit nervous. They were waiting to see how this went and then maybe you will have got more response from them because some of them are a bit shy or nervous about the situation. Like I said, there’s two ladies well, one I know in particular, she’ll cry when she has a flush. She’d rather hide in the toilet. It really upsets her but I think her upbringing, she wasn’t able to talk about it. She has no one to talk to about it so when I started broaching the subject at work they were like, “Wow, oh, someone’s speaking to us about it.” And so it’s a more open subject at the moment.
How many women do you think at work are going through this?
There’s loads. I know of six off hand really, at the moment and we all laugh, well, we talk about it but we make a thing, a joke about it at work because they’ll take their jackets off as well and they’re fanning. One lady is looking into herbal remedies. I’m not sure exactly what but she was going to get back to us about what she’d researched and somebody drinks iced tea. They’ve all got their own theory as to what makes them feel better. So yeah, but it’s an open subject now at [supermarket].
Education is vital in bringing the menopause into the open. As one woman observed, ‘stress has been highly publicised in the workplace; why can’t they do the same thing for the menopause?’
Last reviewed July 2018.
Last updated July 2018.