'I had no choice but to resign': Women on going through the menopause at work

'I had no choice but to resign': Women on going through the menopause at work

Around 13 million women in the UK are either either peri- or post menopausal.

Symptoms of the menopause can last up to 15 years, with one in four women experiencing these to a ‘severely debilitating’ level.

Yet, despite the fact that this directly impacts around half of our population, there is still a general lack of support and understanding.

While the recent proposals to to allow Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) to be sold over the counter for the first time would be a huge step forward, there is still a long way to go.

One area of life that is hugely impacted by menopause is work.

Not only are women having to deal with the symptoms, but they also have to face the added stress and pressure of feeling misunderstood, as though they have to hide what is happening to them – or as though they have to ‘soldier on’.

‘Menopausal women are the fastest growing demographic in the workforce,’ cosmetic doctor and intimate health specialist, Dr Shirin Lakhani tells Metro.co.uk.

According to the Faculty of Occupational Medicine, almost eight out of 10 of menopausal women are in work.

‘Despite that, recent research suggests more than one million women in the UK could be forced out of their jobs this year because their employers are failing to support them as they go through the menopause’, Dr Lakhani continues.

‘Not only do these figures demonstrate what a significant proportion of the UK workforce are affected by menopause, they also highlight the huge failings that still exist around menopause awareness, training and provision in the workplace.’

Dr Lakhani explains that women often feel the need to cover up the menopause due to fear of being shamed, and for the repercussions it may have on their career development, and the way in which their bosses and colleagues perceive them.

‘Unlike pregnancy and disability, which come with employment rights, menopause currently has very little legislation around, which is one of the reasons why employees can often feel vulnerable and feel like they need to cover it up,’ she says.

Sometimes, things get so unmanageable that women feel they have no option but to leave their jobs – positions that they’ve worked hard to get to.

This was the case for Steph Kelby, 51, owner of Pure Savvy, a vegan skin care and wellbeing brand. Steph started going through the menopause aged 49, after working her way up the career ladder to chief operating officer for a multi-million pound business.

She later realised she had started experiencing symptoms at around 46, although didn’t know at the time that’s what it was. This was because it wasn’t something people spoke about much, at that time, she says.

‘I became forgetful, suffered brain fog, felt completely apathetic about things and started to feel like I was starting to go crazy,’ she tells Metro.co.uk.

Aged 49, the night sweats kicked in – and Steph went to see her GP.

After realising her symptoms were a result of the menopause, Steph did mention what she was going through to her boss.

However, her boss at the time was younger and hadn’t experienced it herself, or had anyone working for her that had gone through it, so it was difficult to explain how it was affecting her.

‘I battled on for over six months, trying to hide constant brain fog, forgetfulness and heightened emotions,’ she says.

‘But in the end, I felt I was being sidelined and work given to others instead of me, and I didn’t I didn’t feel as though I had any choice but to resign.’

Steph’s experience isn’t unusual.

‘It is very common for women to want to cover up their symptoms and experiences,’ explains Dr Michelle Griffin, Gynaecologist, Healthcare Strategist and Advisor.

‘Typically, this is because they are embarrassed and in denial that it is happening to them and often in that moment during a hot flush, heavy period or memory loss, they feel out of control and that is scary for anyone.’

Dr Griffin explains that this is further compounded when it happens in the workplace, particularly if it’s in front of colleagues and customers or clients. 

How can the symptoms impact women in the workplace?

Menopause affects many aspects of female functioning including the function of the brain. 

Katie Armstrong is a GP specialising in women’s health and menopause, at Clinic51.

She says: ‘Women may experience disabling anxiety or low mood for the first time in their life, marked cognitive impairment with word finding difficulties and problems with memory and focus, insomnia-waking throughout the night, disabling headaches, palpitations, low energy, dry itchy skin, recurrent urinary tract infections – and that’s before we’ve even talked about hot flushes.

‘Each individual symptom can affect a woman’s ability to work but if you put them all together they can make work practically impossible.’  

Dr Armstrong points to a British Menopause Society survey which found 45% of women felt menopausal symptoms had had a negative effect on their work.

‘However,’ she adds, ‘47% of women who took a day off work due to menopause symptoms said they wouldn’t tell their employer the real reason.

‘Even more shockingly Newson Health Research & Education have found 18% of women are taking at least eight weeks off work because of menopausal symptoms,’ she continues.

While 21.2% avoid going for a promotion, 18.2% reduce their hours and 12.1% resign.

‘In my experience, women deal with this by working extra hard to compensate, which actually exacerbates the problem,’ says Dr Armstrong.

‘Many women may not even understand that menopause is the reason for how they are feeling – research shows that 77% of women don’t realise their symptoms are related to the menopause.’

‘Women tend to internalise this, lose confidence in their own ability and feel that they are the problem and that they no longer have a valuable part to play in the workplace – when the opposite is true with women in midlife bringing experience, wisdom and maturity that is priceless.’

Lesser known symptoms

The more common or ‘stereotypical’ symptoms of menopause are things like hot flushes, night sweats and irregular periods.

However, Dr Griffin points out that there are over 40 symptoms related to fluctuating and reducing hormone levels.

‘The hormones affect every part of the body and hence symptoms are widespread and not just related to the gynaecological ‘woman’s’ organs,’ she says.

‘There are physical, cognitive and emotional symptoms. Every woman experiences a different set of symptoms and these can change.

‘Therefore it is really important to be aware that each woman has an individual journey and there is not one “standard” perimenopause’.

Claire Hattrick, from Andover, Hampshire, was 42 when she thought she had rolled onto her little finger in her sleep and dislocated it.

Within a few months, she had the same pain in her elbows, knees and hips. As this wasn’t one of the ‘typical’ symptoms, she didn’t ever think to put it down to perimenopause. However, it turned out that was exactly what she was going though – and joint pain is, in fact, a lesser known effect of menopause.

‘For nine years I went undiagnosed,’ she tells Metro.co.uk. ‘I was seeing many consultants, and arthritis, fibromyalgia and lymes disease were all mentioned – but all the tests came back clear.

‘It was incredibly debilitating. I was struggling to walk, so it made day to day life hard.’

As Claire was a self-employed beauty therapist, on her feet all day, she would be in agony by the end of the day. However, as a single mum to identical twin daughters, she had to keep working – otherwise she had no income.

‘The only advantage was I could plan when clients were in so I could spread clients out to take a break in between,’ she explains. 

‘I didn’t tell my clients for a long time in fear that they would go elsewhere.’

Nine years on, Claire is better than she has been in a long time and now blogs about women’s experiences with the menopause.

She explains: ‘I have a huge passion for helping menopausal women so they don’t loose nine years of their life like I did.’

Going through menopause at a younger age

For others, menopause comes earlier.

Victoria Hardy, 38, is a content creator and Colleague Transformation Manager and Empathy Specialist for a large corporate bank, based in Bognor Regis.

Victoria was ‘thrown into’ menopause surgically aged 34, after having to go through a full hysterectomy, following nineteen operations for endometriosis, cysts, and pre-cancerous cells.

She describes no-one telling her what to expect.

‘With little knowledge and guidance on what was to come except hot flushes, I was told to take HRT for the next 12 years was sent on my merry way,’ she tells Metro.co.uk.

Victoria describes suffering with night sweats, waking up drenched, with little sleep every night. She also didn’t feel herself, was ‘losing her sh*t’ over the smallest things, and hated how her body was starting to change – experiencing vaginal atrophy and losing hair from her head – and growing it on her chin

‘So you could say that I was far from having a healthy libido,’ she jokes.

At work, when the symptoms crept in, Victoria found she couldn’t quite spin as many plates as before.

‘Anxiety and panic attacks hiding in bathrooms came, while I held up my usual persona of the “quirky, funny, creative” one,’ she says.

Victoria was struggling with hitting deadlines, concentrating in meetings (especially virtual) was impossible, and she believed she was no good at her job, being a mum, a wife – everything.

And, at 34, not fitting the societal box of menopause was lonely.

‘I started to internally question where I fitted in as it became exhausting to juggle my confidence slowly trickling away, and keeping up an appearance,’ she says.

‘I had developed depression and anxiety – resulting in me not wanting to live.’

Eventually, at breaking point, Victoria had to take six months off work. She then got professional help, through her work’s healthcare package.

‘However this was from a mental health perspective not holistically looking at the bigger picture.

‘The link to menopause was never recognised and wasn’t covered in my medical scheme.’

Dr Armstrong points out that the culture of organisations needs to change, and education is key – however, so is access to good evidence based medical care.

‘It’s a travesty that the majority of insurance policies exclude menopause care – it’s also actuarial madness, as supporting women improves longterm health outcomes,’ she says. 

‘Big corporations have the power to insist their polices include menopause care, and this would make a huge difference.’

Victoria agrees that not only would this be beneficial to the women suffering, it would benefit workplaces as well.

‘Had there been more awareness and support for managers of menopausal symptoms in place, along with supportive knowledgable GPs, I truly believe I wouldn’t have had to take off so much time,’ she says.

The bigger picture

When it comes to the bigger picture, and societal changes, progress is being made – however, there is still a long way to go.

‘There’s still an element of shame and embarrassment,’ says Victoria.

‘Whether talking about women’s bodies, dry vaginas (yes I said it!), flooding through our clothes as menstrual cycles change, or the stigma as women of not being able to cope and live up to what is expected.

‘We often apologise or hold the embarrassment for the others in the room, rather than them showing empathy and acknowledgment for us.’

Referring to the recent attention that menopause has received, in the press, and the conversations that are happening, Victoria stresses that ‘the conversation must keep going.’

‘It’s not going away, with the gap between motherhood and natural peri-menopause closing; fertility issues, early onset, surgeries, gender transition all increasing.

‘Menopause is here affecting relationship breakdowns, mental health pandemics and one million amazing woman leaving the workplace.

‘Not getting the right hormonal care from GPs or support in work is dangerous and unacceptable,’ she says. 

Dr Griffin feels hopeful about the changes that are taking place on a societal level. And, while giving women the correct level of medical support and care is important enough on its own, Dr Griffin is clear that everyone will benefit from improved understanding and care around menopause.

‘Individually women will gain a great deal from a society that is more open to and supportive of this phase of life,’ she says.

‘In turn, workplaces offering support and flexibility will gain significantly from increased performance and productivity, less sick days, less staff turnover, improved retention of people – as well as their knowledge, expertise and experience.’

So, it’s win win – and women can’t be left to suffer, unsupported like this, any longer. 

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