Imagine this: the pinnacle of your career is on the horizon; the moment, the recognition, the title you’ve been waiting for since you started your profession is finally within reach. You have worked tirelessly, and it’s all led you to the top of your game. This is a moment that you should be able to savour and enjoy; however, there is one problem. You suddenly can’t remember your debit card number or the last conversation you just had with your colleague. In fact, during a previous meeting, you struggled to find the right words to a subject that you know backward and forwards and could recite with your eyes closed, except this time, you didn’t.
To make matters worse, you had a hot flush when talking to the CEO, feeling a choking heat envelope your face, and couldn’t focus on his words. Anxiety has begun to rule your professional interactions, and you notice yourself shrinking back as your confidence slips away at this crucial moment. What’s happening to you?
If this sounds familiar, you may be experiencing the menopausal transition in the workplace. Menopause itself is simply the first anniversary of your last period. However, the lead-up to that final curtain close can be characterized as the “menopausal transition,” when a woman’s hormones begin to fluctuate and wane as she nears this time. These hormone fluctuations can lead to side effects that a woman feels throughout her body, either severely or hardly perceptible at all.
According to the 2022 article In the Misdiagnosis of Menopause: What Needs to Change? published in the American Journal of Managed Care, there are over 30 known symptoms associated with menopause, including missing or heavy periods, intense pre-menstrual pain or bloating, brain fog, forgetfulness, insomnia, anxiety, mood changes, hot flushes (or flashes), and so many more. These symptoms don’t just show up when a woman is in the privacy of her own home; she can be in a board meeting, presenting critical information, or meeting with potential clients. And, if her symptoms are moderate to severe in their discomfort, this constant and unpredictable fluctuation can throw even the most professional expert off her game.
Menopause is rarely discussed among women or their doctors, let alone with employers, and it’s understandable. Although every woman will pass through this transition, we still aren’t prepared to discuss it as a society or acknowledge it with an employer. Perhaps constriction of communication is out of fear of being stigmatized or relegated to the back benches at work, or it could be a lack of understanding of what is happening within our bodies. For example, many menopausal symptoms can be misdiagnosed as depression. However, it’s not just a personal issue, one that women must deal with behind closed doors — it’s also a business issue, where employers should prioritize supporting women for one simple reason: professional women are leaving their cherished jobs because of menopause.
According to a survey conducted by the Menopause Doctor, the world’s most extensive online menopause library, nine out of 10 women women reported that menopause symptoms negatively affected their work, with 51% reported having to take sick leave to manage their symptoms. It’s no surprise then that the same study also says that 51% of menopausal women reduced their work hours, and 32% quit their jobs altogether. If this is a small issue, look at it from a macro lens. According to Statistica, the Indian female labour force is steadily increasing yearly, predominantly between the ages of 25-54. The average age that a woman experiences menopause is approximately 51 years, with the onset of perimenopausal (menopausal transition) occurring as early as seven years prior, in a woman’s early 40s.
Shortly after the average age of menopause, there is a grand exodus of women from the workplace, leaving behind their skills and institutional knowledge. According to UK publication The HR Director, the recruiting, hiring, and training of a new employee to cover the institutional knowledge and job description of each woman leaving her job is around £5,000 (around ₹5.3 lakh).
There are endless reasons apart from menopause that will cause a woman to reduce or stop work altogether, from family demands of raising children, caring for aging family members, or simply a shift in work and life priorities. However, the coincidence of women exiting the workforce at the same time menopause occurs is no small correlation. The effects of menopause on women and the workplace can be minimized with the right tools and support— we have to dismantle the fear and vulnerability around it. Conversations need to be had and new standards need to be set so that women can enjoy their careers for as long as they wish.
If you’re experiencing menopause or peri-menopause symptoms at the workplace and want to take matters into your own hands, here are some ways you can advocate for your health at work and work with your symptoms to benefit you when on the job.
Arm yourself with information
Knowledge is power, and once you have a clearer picture of what the menopausal transition may look or feel like for you, it will help you regain your confidence and control over the situation. Learn what symptoms to expect and meet with your primary care physician to discuss any concerns you may have. Online resources such as the Menopause Doctor and Latte Lounge are great for arming yourself with the tools to have critical conversations.
Discuss it with your manager
After you’ve armed yourself with knowledge, book a one-on-one meeting with your direct manager for a frank conversation. Before you do, outline what you would like to discuss and brainstorm the outcomes that you would like from your meeting to help direct the discussion. You may want flexible working hours to be the most productive at the time that suits you, or you may need to have blocks of preparation time before meetings rather than running back-to-back; all of these requests are valid. If you feel more comfortable, you can invite your HR representative to sit in the meeting with you.
Brain fog: Use technology such as sending voice notes to yourself after meetings to recap the discussion, write a to-do list on the notes app on your phone and set up reminders or alarms so you don’t forget critical tasks that need to be completed.
Exhaustion or Lack of Sleep: Set up simple sleep hygiene practices to help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer. Those include limiting blue light emitting technology thirty minutes before bed, dimming the lights, having a warm shower and a cool room, and planning to go to bed at least 8-9 hours before you must wake up.
Hot Flushes: Many women experience an increase in insomnia or increased night sweats as they transition through menopause. Reduce the occurrence of hot flushes at work by minimizing triggers such as caffeine and spicy food. If you can’t eliminate them, consider dropping them 2-3 hours before any large presentation or meeting that requires your complete attention and focus.