In her book Cracking the Menopause, broadcaster, author, menopause activist, and Stripes Advisory Board member Mariella Frostrup tackles every aspect of perimenopause and menopause, examining everything from physical symptoms like insomnia, to treatments like HRT, to the impact that menopause can have on our personal relationships, careers, and sense of self.
In the excerpt below, Frostrup dives into the ways workplaces are failing menopausal workers — and what we can do about it.
If a cooling wind of change starts blowing through a woman’s career during her late forties, it gets positively icy when she reaches her fifties. This might sound a rather pleasant meteorological phenomenon for those of us who are feeling too hot half the time. In reality, the metaphor is of little use. Age, up to a certain point, is described as relative, but as you approach mid-life, it becomes depressingly defining.
There are around five million women aged fifty-plus in the workplace in the UK, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) statistics (and presumably the same sort of number aged forty to fifty, and – many – perimenopausal). With one in four likely to suffer severe menopausal symptoms, and many others struggling with less serious, but still significant ones, it’s surely obvious that workplaces need to make provision for us and accommodate us better.
A 2019 survey of 1,132 menopausal women by Newson Health Clinic revealed that seventy-six per cent of their workplaces weren’t offering any sort of menopause support, in spite of over ninety per cent of respondents feeling that their symptoms were having a negative impact on work. That’s hundreds of thousands of us set adrift and on our own.
Despite the increasing numbers of us in the workforce, in much of popular perception an aging woman is still an increasingly redundant one, and it’s an aspect of our working culture which is almost as stubbornly true today as it was in the 1950s. Back then, of course, what you lost at menopause was perceived as your only skill set — the ability to procreate. Now we’re in the twenty-first century, it’s insanity that our value as employees is in any way connected to our fertility. There are many compelling reasons to have substantial numbers of female mid-lifers on the payroll. We’re freed up from the demands of childrearing and the emotional rollercoaster of youthful relationships (who hasn’t called in sick after yet another break-up?), but the effort and commitment remains one-sided.
An Ipsos Mori poll in October 2020 found that half of working women aged forty to sixty-five have experienced three or more menopausal symptoms while at work. As we know, many of the trickiest symptoms are also the most subtle, such as anxiety and brain fog. If these occur in the office — forgetting things or worrying about completing deadlines — it’s hard to know whether it’s just life stress and general pressure or a pesky period of hormonal change. Or both.
I am writing this book aged fifty-eight. Having worked since the age of sixteen, I have been peri- or post-menopausal for around a quarter of my working life. Yet, despite some pretty desperate days, following nights of palpitations and insomnia, and the low mood that often comes with lack of sleep, I’ve never once had a day off to facilitate my menopause. That’s not a boast, it’s a lament for me and the millions of women out there who struggle through debilitating symptoms, while juggling their domestic and work responsibilities and trying to look as youthful as possible so nobody notices they’re middle-aged.
Hot flashes make it easier to identify what’s happening. But a surge of red-hot heat rippling through your body as soon as you are stressed means that having a meeting or making a presentation in a room full of colleagues is pretty daunting. The all-consuming fear is that you’ll wind up highlighting the very thing you’re trying to disguise.
Few of us are comfortable sharing with a male line managers they might need someone else to do the presentation to the new clients, for fear of fueling the idea that women aren’t able to do a job as well as men. The debilitating symptoms might be taking their toll, but does it sound credible, let alone professional, to be excusing yourself from work because your hormones are in turmoil?
Before menopause educator Deborah Garlick held a seminar with a Midlands police force in 2018, her company received a message from a female officer. "She asked us to stop talking about menopause. They felt that it made them look weak, when they’d fought hard for equality." This is one of the biggest fears behind addressing it in the workplace.
Women may make up forty-seven per cent of the UK workforce, but acknowledging the fact of the menopause might make us look less employable. "There’s huge concern about women being seen as a bit ditzy," says Deborah. "In fact, we’re working harder, if anything. Nobody wants to be patronized. They just want to do their job well, and that might mean minor adjustments to hours or environment. Too many of us still have the mindset that menopause is towards the end of life and career. You don’t want people to think, 'Oh, she’ll be retiring soon.'
"In reality, women take on more, compensate for their perceived 'failings' such as tiredness, work harder and end up miserable. That’s what we’re trying to counteract." A 2019 CIPD (the professional body for HR and people development) report reads as follows: "By taking the menopause seriously and treating it as an occupational health and people management issue, organizations can help to mitigate the potential negative impact of symptoms on the individual and the organization."
That’s it. Symptoms are something that may affect work and quality of life. So they need acknowledging and tackling, if necessary. It’s so simple.
From Cracking the Menopause: While Keeping Yourself Together by Mariella Frostrup and Alice Smellie. Copyright 2021 by Mariella Frostrup and Alice Smellie. Published by Bluebird Publishing. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.