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Peri-menopause in the workplace: Is it the last taboo?

Since mid last year I've been struggling. Things came to a head at the start of March when I was at a point that I felt I probably needed to break up with my partner, give my kids away for adoption, quit my job, remove all the heating from all rooms I enter and start a memory course because I was obviously also going senile.

The reality was that I was in fact entering peri-menopause; my partner, kids and even work colleagues were not deliberately annoying me but rather I was going through a change, a hormonal revolution. All rooms felt too hot because I'm experiencing the joy of both night and day hot flushes. The memory fog and anxiety I was feeling around my job was a classic but often misunderstood symptom of both the peri-menopause and menopause. I'm quite young to be experiencing these symptoms and it was only a chance discussion with my mum that helped me figure out what was happening to me. She had gone through early peri-menopause too and so had my grandmother, both fully in the menopause by the time they were 43. My symptoms are an exact replica of my mother's experiences, and just like me she wasn't clear what was going on at the time and had also worried for her mental health.

Workplaces are increasingly waking up to the need to be more inclusive, allowing everyone to bring their whole self to work. My own organisation just received an award for being one of the best places to work for LGBTQ Equality and many other organisations are seeing the benefits of diversity, and more importantly inclusion. While we see conferences and talks on gender, race and social exclusion, I have yet to hear about one dedicated to what is potentially the last workplace taboo - peri-menopause and menopause.

So what exactly is peri-menopause and why is it such a 'bother' for many women? It is a period of natural transition towards the end of a women's reproductive years. At the end of this transition phase is menopause itself, officially defined as the stage in life when a woman has not had a menstrual period for 12 months. Peri-menopause can start anywhere up to 10 years before menopause and can lead to wild fluctuations in estrogen levels. This in turn can lead to fluctuating moods, hot flushes, memory fog, depression and sleep difficulties.

While peri-menopause can be a tricky experience, it can be even more so when experienced early, as defined as taking place before 45 years old. Women in their late 30's and early 40's are often at a point when their children are growing older and even entering secondary school, where they suddenly have more physical time to think about their future direction and ambition. If peri-menopausal symptoms such as memory fog, anxiety and day time flushes start taking place this can lead to a loss of confidence in and around the workplace, especially if you don't know quite what is happening to you. In many industries there is a significant gender pay gap as you move up the pay quartiles. If women feel their only option to cope with peri-menopause and menopause is to reduce their ambition or even leave the workforce we are loosing valuable and often senior female talent.

Once I realized that my symptoms were those of peri-menopause I suddenly felt so much better. There is no one size fits all solution for dealing with my symptoms and it will be a case of trying things out, both natural and medical. In particular in the workplace I've been taking proactive steps to help alleviate my symptoms, including;

  • Having an open and honest discussion with my manager and wider team. Everyone has been very supportive. A number of the men in my team also have wives who are experiencing similar symptoms. My discussions have allowed them to take the opportunity to learn more about how they can better support the women around them by better educating themselves on this often taboo topic.

  • Buying a small USB desk fan that is portable enough that I can take it around into meeting rooms with me. I never apologize for using it and am always happy to explain if someone asks, which generally they don't.

  • If I'm having a tricky memory or anxiety day and I know I have client meetings and presentations ahead of me I work with my team to let them know that they may need to step up to support me. I also make sure that I write down any tricky words or phrases I might want to use so that if I get a sudden blank I can hopefully jog my memory.

  • If I really need to rest I just take a break or work from home. There is nothing worse than pushing yourself beyond your limits. Taking small breaks and being able to work from home has been invaluable for me, in particular when my psychological symptoms are at their most extreme or I've had a particularly bad night of hot flushes.

While I'm still on a journey to find the right treatment for my symptoms being able to name what I'm experiencing and learning to make adjustments to meet my needs has made a world of difference. Now if only I convince my partner that he should wear those new thermal pajamas I bought him so I can turn off all the heating and crank open the window even further, because it is definitely too hot in here.

In March 2019 the CIPD produced excellent guidance to help women and their colleagues break down the stigma around menopause so that everyone "can achieve their true potential at work". I highly recommend a read of all the great resources available on their site.

If you enjoyed this post please check out the rest of my blog here, including my post on the cogs for progress: a rethink of progress in the workplace and the uphill challenge of a corporate career.

All opinions are solely my own and do not express the views or opinions of my employer.


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