Guest blog written by June Potts, founder of Menopause 360 Consultancy.
Menopause is often referred to with negative rhetoric, including in my own experience, but it doesn’t need to be that way. If women are prepared and educated about the menopause and the 34 associated symptoms, the impact, and the solutions, they can make informed decisions based on what’s right for them. Importantly, because every woman will experience menopause differently – one size does not fit all.
Research shows us that those women who prepare for the menopause experience fewer symptoms, are more in control, and lead fuller, happier lives. A natural, biological occurrence, menopause can last between 4-12 years. With average life expectancy increasing, as well as retirement age, more women are now working through their menopause than ever before. Yet sadly, as a society we fail to recognise this, and so silence and stigma persist – even more so in the workplace, where the ‘M’ word is often taboo, resulting in 90% of organisations failing to recognise menopause as a business problem.
Affecting 4.4 million working women aged 50-64 (ONS, 2019), popular culture is changing the way the menopause is perceived. The new emergence of focus towards women’s experiences means that menopause at work is being spoken about in broadcast and print media, suggesting that women are ready to talk about the menopause. And yet, there’s no legal requirement for organisations to have a menopause policy or to protect employees experiencing menopause symptoms. Nor is there legal protection for businesses that experience undue impact when an employee’s menopause symptoms are affecting their ability to work. Nonetheless, menopause has the potential to cause psychological distress, erratic behaviours, and sick leave, and is responsible for up to one million women leaving the workforce due to the impact on health and wellbeing.
With many in the medical profession receiving only five to seven hours of menopause training in medical school, it’s no surprise that over 14 million sick days are taken annually as a result of menopause symptoms. Presenteeism is also a distinct issue for those experiencing menopause, something much more difficult to quantify and measure. Menopause is costly: yet many businesses remain silent.
So how do I know these things? Life sometimes has a funny way of getting you to where you need to be in order to impact and challenge social norms. Personal journeys are often an uphill battle requiring resilience and strength of character to eventually reach a safe space – when you get there, you know you’ve arrived. For the past seven years, I’ve been riding an emotional rollercoaster – this is my menopause story.
The Tipping Point
At age 47, I found myself in the ‘sandwich generation’, juggling the challenges of an elderly parent with dementia, a husband diagnosed with cancer and a daughter studying for exams. Life was stressful, mirroring that of a textbook menopause case study. Mood swings, forgetfulness, fatigue, and paranoia were symptomatic of what I thought was a lack of sleep, worry and anxiety. Looking back, I was experiencing perimenopause – who knew?
The tipping point came at age 49 when I eventually consulted my GP, having collapsed with endometriosis pain. I was referred to a consultant, who due to a long-term history of endometriosis and PMS, bordering on Premenstrual Dysphoria Dysfunction (PMDD), I was provided with the option of undergoing a bilateral oophorectomy. Equipped with the knowledge a total hysterectomy would catapult me into menopause; I grasped the opportunity. I had suffered a hormonal imbalance since puberty, and I just wanted to feel normal. This was my opportunity to be the person I might have been.
Nothing prepared me for the menopause. Within four weeks, I experienced the top five menopause symptoms. My life was in disarray. I couldn’t function. I suffered hot flushes, night sweats, insomnia, irritability, and brain fog. Regardless, like most women, I soldiered on. Having had a poor experience with HRT in the initial stages, I discounted this, choosing to manage my menopause holistically by making lifestyle changes, such as cutting out alcohol, reducing my caffeine and spicy food intake, increasing my exercise levels. I also utilised a device called a Lady Care, which helped with hot flushes and bloating – it was my lifeline. I would often go into meltdown if I misplaced it, due to the debilitating menopause symptoms. Still, I prided myself on attending work every day as the Head of Customer Contact, responsible for a 60 seat call centre. As I enjoyed the kudos from winning a bronze accolade at the European Call Centre and Customer Service Awards, I was coping, or so I thought.
A change of senior leadership and a new, less informed manager resulted in my being side-lined from a senior management position, without discussion. I had become upset on a couple of occasions, I was showing signs of stress, and I was described as moody – I also over spoke, I’d forget if I didn’t! Mortified, I found the courage to divulge my menopause status despite working in a male-dominated workplace. Sadly, my employer was ill-equipped to support me, other than to offer a new, less significant role and email me a token six sessions with a counsellor with no HR follow-up. I was left to vacate my office of 16 years watched upon by a team of 60 people. This event still pains me, to the point my cortisol levels increase, my stress levels rocket, and I experience an ache in my chest. Symptoms diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder.
At the time, l felt humiliated, isolated, and excluded, resulting in a loss of confidence and self-respect. Having undergone a hysterectomy, sadly, nobody took the time to talk to me or understand how my menopause symptoms were affecting my work, behaviours and/or personal life. Consequently, my experience of working through the menopause was damaging, difficult and unnecessary. In part, I still carry the psychological scars.
A former board member, my work life took a dramatic turn for the worse. I was excluded from meetings – my opinion was no longer valid. My annual discretionary bonus was withdrawn for demonstrating menopausal symptoms. I had 18 one-to-one meetings cancelled by my line manager, who incidentally told me that if I was unhappy sitting under an air-conditioning unit I should consider leaving. I lacked a sense of purpose and belonging and subsequently became miserable, sad, and insular. A former extrovert, I was unrecognizable to myself and others.
Making the Change
The reality of the situation forced change. I applied for flexible working and started a part-time MBA course in an attempt to rebuild my career and confidence. Now, I’ve graduated with distinction and an award-winning dissertation. My research covered the organisational barriers for change leading to menopause remaining the last workplace taboo. Of significance is the HR Director’s attitude when asked if I could approach the workforce as part of my MBA research. My request was declined, as I was informed that “nobody would want to talk about the menopause”, followed by a suggestion to research IR35. This short-sighted view speaks volumes. Resourceful, I found an alternative sample group.
Made redundant in March 2020, I’ve reinvented myself as a Business Consultant specialising in menopause at work. In a nutshell, I educate organisations to understand why menopause is of importance in the workplace and how it affects the bottom line. I understand the importance of the psychological contract and leader-follower dynamics in building trust that needs to be embedded in an organisations culture, rather than a token organisational value. Research highlights many women do not divulge their menopause status for fear of bias and discrimination. Without trust, it’s difficult to create an open, inclusive culture necessary to create a menopause friendly workplace. This is where my experience comes in.
Having lived, worked, and researched menopause at work it’s what I do. I have succeeded in turning a negative into a positive. Menopause is my passion, and supports my future aspiration to complete a PhD, a continuation of my Master’s research, Menopause in the Workplace: flushing out the taboo.
June Potts is an affiliate trainer for Health@Work, specialising in menopause awareness training. You can find out more about Health@Work’s menopause training courses here, or read our recent blog series on menopause awareness, its importance, and how you can get involved here.