Why it’s time to smash the overdue taboo of menopause and the workplace

Written by guest contributor Jodi Rosenthal

A middle-aged woman cooling down with a fan and glass of water to relieve the symptoms of a hot flush, menopause.
Photo by Maroowl on twenty20

Picture this: You are standing in front of a room of clients, ready to take them through an incredibly important proposal that you have been working on for weeks. Your boss is in the room. While you do have a few butterflies, you are prepared, confident, and ready to knock this out of the park. You begin, but 15 minutes into your presentation, something doesn’t feel right….

You feel like a fog has settled on your mind and you start struggling to find the right words. You lose your train of thought a couple of times and miss a couple of crucial talking points. Then, you start to get hot. And this is not a “nervous” heat or a result of the number of bodies in the room. This is a whole new level of heat, rising up through your body and manifesting in sweat pouring down your face, creeping down your neck, and pooling in your clothes. Your heart is pumping fast. You can feel everyone’s eyes on you, and despite the desire to flee the room for some air, you stoically power through to the end of the presentation.

The clients leave and you finally make your way to the bathroom; hot, stressed and anxious. Your confidence has taken a hit and you start catastrophising about possible repercussions for what has transpired. The worst part is that you know exactly what is happening to you but you must deal with it alone. Why? Because no one talks about menopause at work.

The emotional impact of menopause at work

This is what we suspected prior to conducting our research at Circle In - that menopause remains a taboo subject in workplaces. But suffice to say the results from our recent survey of people’s experiences of and attitudes towards menopause in the workplace were more shocking than we ever could have anticipated. While each individual’s physical experience of menopause may differ (including the type and longevity of the physical effects) our research showed that the impacts on working life were eerily similar - and extremely distressing.

I was unable to hold a conversation due to brain fog. The words just wouldn't come.

For starters, 83% of respondents who had experienced menopause said their work was negatively affected. Almost half of the respondents (48%) cited a drop in confidence as a result and almost as many (46%) said that the stress of having to hide their experience had the greatest impact. Another piece of information that is not widely known, is that individuals going through menopause may also have difficulty sleeping, which can lead to daytime fatigue and difficulty concentrating. 62% of respondents said that the stress of juggling work with the effect of bodily changes was the most challenging aspect of work during menopause.

There is a lot written about “managing the juggle" as a working parent, but managing the competing demands of work and life is a challenge during the menopausal transition, too. Our research found that the emotional response caused the greatest distress for respondents, often compounded by a sense of going through it alone, because, as one respondent put it: “Women’s problems aren’t really spoken about”.

At varying times during my cycle, the impact of pain and other symptoms meant I needed time off from work, and didn't reveal the reason for my 'illness'.

I was unbelievably emotional and found it hard to concentrate. I would often burst into tears over nothing and struggled to cope with things I would usually handle with ease. I actually thought I was losing my mind.

Starting the conversation

Stressed. Emotional. Fatigued. Difficulty concentrating. We could easily be talking about some of the physical impacts of pregnancy! However, the difference in awareness and support for these two stages of life in the workplace could not be more different - and we wanted to know why. What became immediately clear through the results of the research was that most people who hadn’t experienced menopause didn’t know much about it or how to support someone going through it. In fact, only 4% of people that knew someone going through menopause rated their knowledge level as ‘high’. Nearly all said their knowledge level was either ‘medium’ (46% ) or ‘low’ (47% ). So not surprisingly, the first part of the answer to “why?” was related to a lack of awareness and education.

They are much younger and don't understand or want to know. Menopause is seen as a failing and an excuse for age discrimination.

This was further reinforced when we delved deeper into the relationship between menopause in the workplace and managerial support. There was no doubt that those going through menopause were eager to get support from their managers. Well over half of all the people we surveyed thought manager support was ‘important’ or ‘very important’, and 53% of those who had an experience of menopause said that their manager's awareness would have been a great support to them during this transition. This was followed closely (49%) by openness to comfortably talk about menopause in the workplace.

I was concerned about my manager thinking negatively about my performance.

Unfortunately, the reality was that the majority of respondents (70%) who had experienced menopause were not comfortable talking to their manager about their challenges or needs. Digging deeper, the reasons for this were predominantly down to gender, with 22% explicitly saying they would not feel comfortable sharing their challenges with their manager because they were male - or in some cases because the workplace was male-dominated. Reading the responses, there was an overwhelming perception that male bosses or employers would not be approachable, understanding, or would penalize the employee for appearing 'weak'. There were also considerable mentions of age being a barrier to having open discussions.

I was concerned about perceptions of underperformance and age.