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“Nobody talks about it at work, although we are probably all thinking about it.” Working Women, Workplaces and Menopause

When my mum was in her 50’s she gave up working. I can’t do that though. I need to keep working as long as I can. It is quite tiring and stressful though, then menopause on top of that, makes it tough. Nobody talks about menopause at work, though we are all probably thinking about it.”   [Jane, Study Participant].

She worked in a corporate environment and I met her in her lunch-break. Agreeing to be interviewed as part of my studies on women, ageing and exercise, it wasn’t long before the interview transitioned towards her work. She was telling me what other women she worked with, were doing to deny their ageing. Menopause snuck into the conversation, hence the comment above.  

Menopause isn’t fun, sexy, or cool, and a woman might spend one-third of her life in post-menopause – but that doesn’t mean women should suffer in silence without support‘, mentioned Psychologist and Ageing Researcher, Professor Margie Lachman over a decade ago. Thankfully, it’s a topic that is slowly being bought into some workplaces and this week, one of New Zealand’s largest companies has made available my online Masterclass on Menopause via their internal system to any of their mid-life women who want to listen to it. Well done them. 

I had no idea it would be such a popular topic” said the surprised HR/ People Manager.  I wasn’t surprised at all. It’s just that it’s been too long coming to workplace wellness initiatives.

Since the 1950’s in New Zealand, approximately 60 percent of all those aged 15 and older have been employed. Yet, in a 2014 paper prepared for the National Advisory Council on the Employment of Women (Calister, 2015), within this period the long term trend has been increasing employment rates for women and decreasing employment rates for men. I know from my own doctoral studies that Baby-boomer research is replete with the knowledge that for both women and men, whilst there has been a shift to earlier retirement from the mid 1950’s through to the mid 1980’s, since then, there has been a significant reversal of this trend.

Hence, more women than ever before are now working into their 50’s, but in a similar vein to the exercise and health education industries, peri-menopause and menopause, has been mainly invisible in workplace health and wellness programmes.  However, as menopause arrives at a time when many women are at the peak of their careers, it’s time for workplaces to put it on their agenda and normalise it – a challenge also made in a recent Harvard Business Review, “We are learning to discuss race, gender, and generational differences more openly at work and we need to put menopause on the agenda too”. (Patterson, 2020). 

It’s been over a decade since researchers explored the experiences of professional women and menopause as part of surveys undertaken with women in the National Association of Female Executives (USA). The majority of menopausal women surveyed experienced both physical and/or emotional symptoms. For many women, symptoms related to menopause significantly affect their daily personal, professional, and social lives. (Simon & Reape, 2009)

Australian findings aren’t much different. As Jack, et al. (2016) remind us, large numbers of women transition through menopause whilst in paid employment and symptoms associated with menopause may cause difficulties for working women, especially if untreated, yet employers are practically silent on this potentially costly issue.

Though several papers established that vasomotor or hot flush (and associated) symptoms, have a negative impact on women’s productivity and capacity to work, this is not a uniform finding. Psychological and other somatic (body) symptoms associated with menopause can have a relatively greater negative influence. These include palpitations, high blood pressure, feelings of increased anxiety, forgetfulness and of course, mood swings. These are all symptoms of an over-worked and ageing nervous system that is under the pump from stress and not sleeping. 

Become Aware of your Response to Workplace and Home Stress

My own doctoral research on women’s healthy ageing, revealed that women are finding it tough to understand all the changes that they are experiencing in their mid-life hormonal transition, and more importantly, how to manage the symptoms that arrive at this time of life too.

Many of my middle-aged (50-62 years) study participants (all of whom remained in the workforce) were turning to fitness pursuits thinking that ‘more is better‘ to enable them to cope with the stress of their work intersecting with a busy home environment. But little did they realise that the ‘go hard or go home‘ mantra, was impacting on symptoms of menopause, especially for those not sleeping. ore muscles and joints as well as poor sleep in their menopause transition. 

Without sleep, women don’t recover from exercise, nor do they recover from the day-in, day-out’ stress of work. Any of you who’ve found that your symptoms resolve when you go on holiday will understand what I mean. 

Not sleeping affects your thyroid and adrenal health, which in turn, increases your hot flushes during the day. 

The accumulation of menopause symptoms when put up against increasing workplace stress or increased daily physical workload as many farming women and nurses have to endure, can lead to fatigued and over-worked adrenal glands.

When the adrenals are over-worked then we stay in ‘fight or flight’ mode for longer. This can cause increased feelings of anxiety, heart palpitations, frustration, irritability and a drop in energy levels, especially in the afternoon. And when you work in a job that requires you to be firing on all cylinders and making all sorts of decisions, especially for those women who have leadership roles, this can all lead to a turn for the worse – not only for women’s physical health during their menopause transition, but also for their emotional health as well. As Gavin Jack and other researchers from Australia contend in their extensive studies on menopause in the workplace –

the many specific and interconnected health, lifestyle, ageing and work-related concerns of women aged 45 years plus (including menopause) can influence women’s participation in paid employment and engagement and performance whilst at work and these are often overlooked.” (Jack et al., 2016).

Workplace stress and peri-menopause do not co-exist! They compete!

When women feel stressed, time-poor and have increasingly challenging roles to juggle between work and home environments, then our chronic stress hormone called cortisol increases over the course of the day. But this is the opposite to what should occur – cortisol should be high in the morning (it switches off melatonin, which is your sleep hormone) and then low in the afternoon and evening (to allow melatonin to rise again in a 24 hour circadian cycle).

Feeling stressed at work increases cortisol (as does not eating properly) and with this, comes the ‘stealing’ of progesterone to keep making cortisol. The result?

Low progesterone in relation to oestrogen which increases feelings of even more anxiety and frustration and can lead to high blood pressure, high resting heart rate, breathlessness, insomnia and for many women, increasing weight gain and sore muscles and joints.  It’s what I explain in my Masterclass on Menopause as one of the underlying causes of your symptoms.  

According to menopause and workplace research, a broad range of factors are known to influence the ability of older workers to remain in the workforce. These include:

  • health status
  • financial position
  • conditions of work including labour demand
  • the availability of suitable (part-time/flexible) work that matches skills
  • the presence/absence of discrimination
  • the centrality of the role of work, and gender.

So, what can employers do to help address these issues for working women? 

Well, firstly, to me, it’s all about acknowledging that this is a normal life stage that women go through. When we do this, and with the knowledge that there are so many women at this life stage still in the workforce, then let’s get it out in the open and position peri-menopause and menopause as a topic well worth putting on the wellness agenda.

Secondly, there are practical strategies that employers should also consider and many of these are from studies that focus on the workplace environment. Strategies researched by Jack et al. (2016) as well as include:

  • Ensuring that the workplace temperature and workplace design is conducive to women experiencing hot flushes. This includes having fans and/or fresh air circulating in the workplace.
  • Managing psycho-social workplace factors, e.g. work stress, perceptions of control/ autonomy  so that work stress does not exacerbate symptoms.
  • Conducting adequate risk assessments to make any adjustments to the physical and psycho-social environment, such as having access to cold water.
  • Ensuring there is provision of information and support, not only for women, but other employees too.
  • Have appropriate training availablefor front-line managers.

Whilst menopause may cause no significant problems for some working women, for others it can present considerable difficulties in both their personal and working lives. Furthermore, hot flushes can be a source of embarrassment and distress. 

I found this out the hard-way too – and the number of women coming through my 12 week programmes will attest to that, I’m sure! During the menopausal transition women report that fatigue and difficulties with memory and concentration can have a negative impact on their working lives, but I would add that the thing that has the most impact on daily health, energy and motivation, is lack of sleep and the never-ending fatigue. If this is you, then yes, talk to your Doctor to see if HRT is an option, but also explore the lifestyle and stress-management strategies that you can put into place during your day, as Jenny learnt to do too. She too is at the peak of her career and it’s been a privilege to support her. 

Dr Wendy Sweet [PhD] – Women’s Healthy Ageing Researcher and MyMT™ Creator & Coach.

References:

Calister, P. (2014). The employment of older New Zealand women. A paper prepared for the National Advisory Council on the Employment of Women, Ministry of Women’s Affairs, Wellington, New Zealand.

Jack, G., Riach, K., Bariola, E., Pitts, M., Schapper, J. & Sarrel, P. (2016). Menopause in the workplace: What employers should be doing. Maturitas, 85, 88-95.

Lachman, M. (2004). Development in midlife. Annu Rev Psychol. 55:305-31. doi: 10.1146/annurev.psych.55.090902.141521. PMID: 14744218.

Patterson, J. (2020). It’s time to start talking about menopause at work. Harvard Business Review. Sourced from: https://hbr.org/2020/02/its-time-to-start-talking-about-menopause-at-work

Simon J., Reape K. (2009). Understanding the menopausal experiences of professional women. Menopause. Jan-Feb;16(1):73-6. doi: 10.1097/gme.0b013e31817b614a. PMID: 18779760.

“If you have ever wondered if there was a clear easy plan to follow to sleep all night, reduce hot flushes and prevent or reduce your weight gain during menopause, then ‘welcome’ – you’re in the right place now.”

Discover how either of my two Menopause Transformation programmes might help you too or take my Symptoms Quiz below… 

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