An estimated 1.3 million women in the U.S. enter menopause each year. For some, this natural life stage happens with minimal disruption. For others, it changes their world. Take the case of Jill Leonard. She was a 44-year-old journalist at a local newspaper when she began experiencing severe mood swings from perimenopause.
"My job had already been stressing me out for quite some time," Leonard says. "The added horror of anxiety followed by outbursts of anger or sadness would settle into gloom by the end of nearly every day. When unpleasant body odors followed as the next symptom, I became downright depressed. The dread of interpersonal relationships paired with the feeling that 'that's it,' that I'm stepping down the cliff of my personal and professional life, made me miserable."
After taking two months of unpaid leave to sort it out, Leonard quit her job to become a solopreneur.
Fast-forward three years, and she's now owner and editor of ImPowerAge, a website on elder care and aging. She's also now in menopause.
"I have finally reached the stage where I'm happy and content with my life. No roller coasters in my head! Life is a calm and peaceful place again, and I agree with women who say that menopause is like getting born again, only with a wisdom you've never had before," Leonard says.
Menopause marks the end of a female's reproductive years. A woman is said to have reached menopause once her periods have stopped for 12 consecutive months. The average age for menopause is 51.
Menopause does not happen all at once. A transitional time known as perimenopause leads up to it. During this stretch of roughly 7-14 years, production of the hormones estrogen and progesterone fluctuates — often resulting in undesirable body changes.
Some of the most reported problems women experience while "going through the change" include:
- Hot flashes/fluctuating body temperature
- Mood swings
- Changes in memory/concentration
- Period changes, such as unpredictability or heaviness
The extent to which an individual woman suffers from these conditions varies widely. Some will experience minor annoyances. Others will face significant challenges similar to Leonard's.
Dealing with menopausal symptoms at work
When people hear the word "menopause," they often think of hot flashes. So, it comes as little surprise that 98% of women in a menopause survey conducted by Working Women Media and Pfizer reported experiencing them, and 31% listed hot flashes as their most troublesome symptom to deal with in the workplace.
A few ways of handling hot flashes at work include:
- Dressing in light-weight clothing or layers that can be removed as needed to adjust body temperature
- Keeping spare clothes in your desk to wear if other attire gets sweated through
- Installing a personal fan at one's desk
- Asking for a cubicle by a working window
- Avoiding lunches with triggers such as alcohol or spicy food
Unfortunately, however, hot flashes often come on suddenly — and sometimes in the presence of others. Women may get embarrassed by the situation, especially around men or younger colleagues.
In some workplaces, female employees feel OK about acknowledging hot flashes and other menopausal symptoms. In the survey above, 54% of the participants strongly or somewhat agree that their colleagues have been supportive as they deal with these symptoms on the job. Then, there are other scenarios.
"I once had a fanning friend who was told by a man in the meeting, 'Would you and your feminine issues please leave the room? It's disturbing the meeting,'" says Li Hayes, creator of the Cool Me Scarf.
Further adding insult to injury, there was no need to bring the comment to the attention of someone higher up. She was already sitting in a meeting with the executive team.
Women dealing with menopausal symptoms (and rude behavior) often find comfort and sound advice by talking with others who share their situation. A similar-aged female colleague might lend a sympathetic ear, provide tips on compensating for brain fog, or offer to cover duties when the need arises to take a break or use the washroom for an extended time. Likewise, online support groups focused on menopause act as an empathetic community and a forum to pose questions.
Sometimes, though, what a woman needs is corporate help. This assistance has many possible forms based on the individual's situation. For instance, a woman who has trouble sleeping could benefit from a later starting time. Someone experiencing anxiety might appreciate a boss who respectfully understands its source and allows her to step away for a few minutes during a meeting.
Having a conversation with one's direct manager is an option. Women uncomfortable with this route might try talking with someone in HR or with a female leader at the company. With an increasing number of organizations hiring a diversity and inclusion officer, this person also would be a good choice for raising awareness of menopausal issues.
Menopause coach and change strategist Kate Usher, author of "Your Second Phase," suggests approaching the interaction with any of these people as a business conversation. She recommends the following steps:
1. Understand your menopausal experience
"Be clear with yourself about which symptoms you are experiencing. How and when do they show up, and which have the greatest impact on your day-to-day activities? This is important because, without this level of awareness, you can't ask for the support you need."
2. Identify the support you need
"This step is about clarifying the support that will enable you to continue with your career. It is defined by the understanding gained by step one. You may find that you work better at certain times of the day, which would indicate that you would benefit from flexible working hours. Do you need access to specific facilities in the office or external support services? Every woman's support needs are different."
"You are about to have an important meeting, so give yourself the time to prepare for it. Does your organization have a policy or guidelines? If so, get a copy," Usher says.
Next, Usher suggests asking what support other women in your organization received.
"Who did they speak to, and how easy was it to get support? Speak to them. This will not only give you an understanding of what to do, but it will also begin to create a support network," she says. "Lastly, practice what you are going to say and how you are going to say it. Many symptoms are exacerbated by nerves; practicing will help you manage this."
4. Control the meeting
"From the outset, define why you are here and what you hope to get out of the meeting. This not only gives you much-needed control but also informs your manager/HR that you are focused on your career. This is good news for them.
"Be clear about what support you need and why. You don't need to go into the details of your symptoms, but you can allude to them. This is a negotiation; make sure you gain the support you really need first.
"At the end of the meeting, agree on the frequency of meetings. This will not be a one-off. Menopause lasts for years, so you will need to revisit."
The future of menopause in the workplace
Modern social movements have made many companies more invested than ever in supporting the specific needs of their employees. This concern may generate greater workplace interest in the challenges menopausal women face.
In addition to retaining current female employees by working with them on accommodations, companies have another reason to put forth effort now. The oldest members of the millennial generation are starting to hit the age for perimenopause. The sheer number of menopausal women in the workforce in the years ahead will demand thoughtfulness.