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Employment Today, HR Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Employment Today, HR Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Employment Today Magazine

Hot topic menopause in the workplace

Nearly half the working women aged 45 to 65 in a recent US survey found that managing menopausal symptoms in their work life was extremely or somewhat difficult. Yvonne van Dongen talked to some Kiwi women about their experiences.

Only two generations ago, women with menopausal symptoms could be diagnosed as suffering from “climacteric melancholia” at best or judged insane and packed off to an asylum at worst. There, treatment included shaving to reduce heat, inserting radioactive rods into the vagina and being dosed with opium. This practice lasted from the late 1800s to the early 1930s.

Eighty years later we have HRT, herbal remedies, early menopause support groups and women at the peak of their powers participating in the workforce.

So things have obviously changed and, without a doubt, for the better. But ask women about their experience of menopause in the workplace for Employment Today and the cracks begin to show.

Most are reluctant to talk publicly. Some because their menopause had been manageable, having few or no signs other than the end of their periods. But many women also experience hot flushes, sweats at night, insomnia, mood swings and forgetfulness. Some suffer severe discomfort. Although anonymity was offered, even women who experienced moderate or severe discomfort weren’t keen to talk. They worried that if menopause was seen as having a negative impact on women’s performance, it might be used against them.

However, a recent American survey (Working Mother Media and Pfizer, May 2014) found just under half of working women aged between 45 and 65 experiencing menopause reported that managing the symptoms is extremely or somewhat difficult. That same survey reported that one in 10 women strongly or somewhat agreed that she had passed up a more demanding position due to her menopausal symptoms.

No comparable surveys exist in New Zealand, but anecdotal evidence suggests working women here are finding “the change” challenging too. How many is not known. In fact the exact numbers relating to most things menopausal are unknown. Australian author Jean Kittson of  You’re Still Hot to Me: The Joys of Menopause, says most statistics on menopause are made up. There’s so little research on menopause that any data quoted on menopause is generally based on a bell curve, she says, not on actual evidence.

In the absence of hard facts, Employment Today eventually tracked down three women happy to talk about their experience.

Michelle* (not her real name) was 42 and a top advertising manager when menopause started and the same age when her periods stopped altogether. She is now 62 and the symptoms continue. “I always have a fan in my room even in winter,” she says. “I’m never cold.” Her doctor has told her she may be one of the rare women for whom the symptoms never entirely go away. “Oh well, I’ve saved a fortune in sanitary products,” she jokes.

At the same time as menopause began, she had to cope with the dual stresses of a young child as well as a particularly stressful period at work. Michelle endured the hot flushes, insomnia and night sweats, but found the loss of confidence hardest of all. She remembers feeling very isolated, unable to confide in other women at work.

“There was no way I could have done that. These women were young, hungry and brittle, only interested in climbing the corporate ladder. They had no empathy. Work was their be-all and end-all. They were way worse than men,” she says. “They would have taken it as an opportunity to revictimise me.”

HRT helped, but eventually the stress and lack of support wore Michelle down. The day she deliberately tried to drive under a truck was also the day she went to the doctor, who insisted she go home immediately and not return to work for three months. They were some of the happiest months of her life. She lost weight, joined a mother’s group, ate well, slept well. The only stress was financial since Michelle was a single mother with a mortgage. She returned to work feeling stronger, but eventually left.

Michelle now works in a non-corporate environment and says she’s much happier. At no time during her struggle did she consider approaching HR. “My experience with them in the past had been pretty awful,” she said. “I’d been to them about another issue and regretted it. I never felt they were on my side.”

Kittson’s own work on menopause revealed that Michelle’s experience is not unusual. Many women lose confidence at work during this time. Mood swings might see them feeling weepy or emotional, but they can’t talk about it. This is the time women will leave the workforce but, since they are older, it’s also more difficult for them to return, so problems begin. Some GPs prescribe anti-depressants, but Kittson says menopause is not a mental illness nor does it cause mental illness.

Sarah* has worked for Air New Zealand for 35 years as a flight attendant. Menopause started for her at 45 and at 57 she still experiences the full gamut of symptoms. She says flying plays havoc with circadian rhythms and may have something to do with her early menopause. Sarah has learned to manage the symptoms with herbal tablets and the support of her colleagues. “We share everything. It’s pretty healthy.”

She says she never felt it necessary to approach HR since her work environment is so supportive “I’d never tell my bosses though. I remember very early on in my career having drinks with the president of our union who said if we used our menstrual cycles as an excuse to take days off, we would never have equality in the workplace. That rang true to me. But you have to remember those were the days when women were paid less than men for the same work.”

HRT has been a godsend for Lily*, 51, a project manager for a government department whose menopause started three years ago. She says her work is relatively supportive, offering employee assistance programmes and counselling. After this discussion she emailed HR to ask if women had approached them about menopause. The reply? “Hell no!”

“Remember, they’re Wellington government workers,” says Lily. “All stoic and dressed in black. People keep to themselves about that sort of stuff.”

The Human Rights Commission reports that in the last five years it’s also had no complaints relating to discrimination due to menopause, while HRINZ CEO Chris Till says menopause is not the topic of regular HR conversations.

In Britain, the national Trade Union Centre has published a booklet on coping with menopause in the workplace. Here the Council of Trade Unions does not have a similar publication though a spokeswoman admitted “it’s a good idea. We probably should.”

To date, baby boomers have been notable for changing the conversation on a variety of topics. As this cohort ages, they might yet do that with the still largely private experience of menopause. If that happens, watch out. Water cooler conversations could heat up at any time.

YVONNE VAN DONGEN is an Auckland-based freelance journalist.

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