Working with the menopause

Occupational therapist Kate Meads explains how deeply the menopause can impact women in the workplace and why it is important for employers to recognise the effect it can have on productivity and the need to support female workers going through it.

Every woman will go through the menopause, usually at some point between age 45 and 55, but symptoms might start much earlier as a woman's oestrogen levels decline. This transitional phase, known as perimenopause, may last several years. It can be a very fraught time, potentially bringing with it a myriad of physical and psychological symptoms.

While it clearly impacts a significant proportion of the population – menopausal women are the fastest-growing demographic in the workforce – it still remains largely a taboo subject, with only a few pioneering organisations putting in place policies and procedures to accommodate the very real needs of their menopausal staff.

Stigma around menopause

As an occupational therapist, Kate Meads, founder of KMA Occupational Therapy, has seen first-hand the extent to which the menopause can impact individuals, as well as the stigma and misunderstanding they can encounter from their employers.

She says, “Professionally and personally I know that the physical and psychological symptoms of menopause can be pretty horrendous. People might think of hot flushes or night sweats, but they don’t realise the much wider range of symptoms women can experience and the degree to which this can affect them, especially at work.

“Menopause can impact on all aspects of their functioning, from overwhelming exhaustion to anxiety and low mood, sleeplessness and weight gain, to name just a few.”

Dealing with the negative effects

Ms Meads adds, “Menopause can make your thoughts fuzzy; you might forget things and make more mistakes. Many women don’t want their employers to know – they’re worried about the consequences for their careers and perceptions of their capabilities and effectiveness.

“Women are telling us that it can completely undermine their confidence at work. Imagine you’re delivering a presentation and suddenly can’t find the right words, or you’re speaking with a colleague you’ve known for a decade but you’re not able to recall their name.”

In fact, the evidence goes some way to confirm those fears. A 2017 government report reviewing international research found menopausal symptoms have negative effects on quality of working life and performance at work, including increased sick days, as well as being associated with fears of redundancy and job loss, and difficulty in looking for work.

“When you are pregnant there is legislation in place to protect you and ensure accommodations and adjustments are made – that just isn’t the case for the menopause,” says Ms Meads. “There is still quite a dismissive culture, which compounds those feelings of frustration, anger, sadness, isolation, low confidence and poor self-esteem. Women feel embarrassed to talk about this, especially if their line manager is a man or a younger woman. It can make you feel very vulnerable.”

Challenging workplace culture

But it needn’t be such a bleak picture, believes Ms Meads. “Knowledge is vital. Women don’t know what to expect or what to do when the menopause symptoms start to hit. While it’s really good to see people talking about this more, there is still such a stigma around it.

“We also need to change the workplace culture. What women want is for employers and managers to understand what the menopause is, what it means for women and take straightforward reasonable steps to support them through it. But it needs to be more than a tokenistic box-ticking exercise. It’s about creating a confidential yet open and supportive avenue for women to discuss this.”

Top tips for feeling better during the menopause

  • Eat well and try not to rely on sugar and caffeine hits to keep you going – you will likely crash even harder later.

  • Keep alcohol consumption down – it makes sleep less refreshing, even if it seems like it’s helping you ‘wind down’.

  • Take regular short breaks throughout the day.

  • Tiredness can put you off, but regular exercise is key to maintaining energy levels in the long term.

  • Take steps to minimise stress. If you’re finding it a challenge to keep up with your workload don’t struggle on and end up dropping the ball – discuss it with your team or line manager.

  • Don’t be too hard on yourself – if you do make an error, try not to dwell on it.

  • Take preventative actions - notes and reminders can help if you’re suffering from brain fog.

  • Drink plenty of water – even mild dehydration can make memory and attention worse.

  • Practise good self-care. Treat yourself well and prioritise doing something you enjoy at least once a week.

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