Coping with menopause symptoms at work can be a huge challenge when brain fog, low mood, imposter syndrome, and hot flashes are waiting to trip you up when you least expect it. I’ve talked to women who head up menopause communities and have shared their eight tips to give you a boost when you’re struggling at work during menopause.
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Brain fog at work
A few years ago, I’d just successfully presented a strategy proposal and was relaxing into the positive vibes of the room. A lovely colleague raised a sensible ‘what if’ scenario, and I opened my mouth to respond. In that instant, my ability to process the question – let alone find the answer – had gone. I had absolutely nothing. Blood pounded in my ears and cortisol flooded my system. There was a terrible pause as I fought the urge to escape.
My tech friend Naomi, 47, talks about the moment she was suddenly unable to learn anything new. Struggling to understand the impacts of development in her industry, she was forced to delegate an important presentation to a terrified junior colleague. “I felt so ashamed,” she says now. “I had no idea what was going on. By the end of the month, I was seriously considering abandoning a career it had taken me two decades to build.”
Laura Shuckburgh, who heads up the organization Marvellous Midlife, agrees. “I was running a very busy architecture practice with my husband, and I had no idea what was happening to me. I remember going to the wardrobe one day and being unable to choose anything to wear. I became agoraphobic, I would suffer from really bad bouts of anxiety and I didn’t want to go to any meetings.”
Talking about menopause in the workplace
So why, when it comes to menopause and the workplace, can it still feel almost impossible to start the conversation – let alone get the support we need?
Laura Shuckburgh says of her own experience, “I was working in a very male-dominated business and people were leaving their jobs because they felt they couldn’t talk about menopause in the office. It becomes all too much and people think it’s easier just to leave.”
There are indeed plenty of horror stories out there. As a consequence, those of us who feel that our careers are only just recovering from the impact of having children might think twice about talking about menopause.
“They come back and have to work their way back up, then all of a sudden menopause hits, just when they could be in line for a promotion or getting onto that real top level,” Laura says.
Why ageism is still an issue
Regardless of our parental status, lots of us worry that we’ll be sidelined, or worse. “We live in a very ageist society, so we might not want to admit that we’re in menopause. But in fact, we’re in the prime of our lives – and we need to advocate for this re-emergence,” says Laura Shuckburgh.
The fact is that real workplace change will only come about if we help create it, both for ourselves and for younger people coming behind us. And, if the alternative is suffering in silence until things reach a crisis point, well, what have you got to lose? Arm yourself with knowledge, understand your worth, and here’s how.
Eight ways to boost your confidence at work during menopause
1. Know you’re in menopause
Simply understanding what’s happening to you will empower you – 45% struggle to recognize that they have menopause symptoms.
“If you don’t know, you don’t know how to ask for help and support,” says Lauren Chiren, who held a senior role in finance when perimenopause hit. Convinced that she had early onset dementia, she felt she lost both her confidence and that of her colleagues and ultimately resigned.
Diagnosis stats are pretty grim across the board, but even worse for Black women like my friend Naomi. Recent research found that doctors are more likely to fail to recognize menopause in women of color, with 45% having multiple appointments before diagnosis.
“I was a bit uncertain about my symptoms, and my doctor flatly refused to believe I was old enough. It wasn’t till I started researching for myself that I realized that it wasn’t some kind of breakdown or neurological disorder. I was menopausal.”
2. Get to know your symptoms
Lauren Chiren, who now leads menopause consultancy Women of a Certain Stage, agrees, adding, “Aching joints, a feeling that you’ve got old overnight, and urinary incontinence. If you’ve got heavy bleeds that come out of nowhere, it’s a recipe for disaster if you’ve got nowhere to change in your workplace, no spare clothes, and nowhere to freshen up.”
But she emphasizes that menopause is not a one-size-fits-all experience. For example, 41% experience palpitations, and a similar number struggle with headaches. Few know that recurrent UTIs are a frequent symptom, experienced by more than 1 in 10 women.
Naomi said: “I’d heard about hot flashes and night sweats, but I didn’t have either of those, and I didn’t know about most of the other symptoms. That cost me time and, all the while, my confidence was ebbing away.”
Understand how menopause is impacting you in the workplace. “Be your own advocate and do as much research as you can,” says Laura Shuckburgh. “Stella is good as all the information you need is in one place.”
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3. Don’t ignore your mental health
Naomi’s most significant symptom was anxiety, which is common. “When I realized that I couldn’t rely on my brain to kick in, I became paralyzed by anxiety. This led to me making little mistakes and then depression set in. I had no idea that these were menopause symptoms.”
Anxiety and depression are one of the most common effects of menopause, with over two-thirds experiencing one or the other. Even more struggle with memory and focus and three-quarters experience brain fog, often in moments when we most need to seem on top of our game.
“If you think about not sleeping properly for weeks, months, maybe years,” says Lauren Chiren, “is it any wonder that your focus, your attention, your self-esteem, your moods are affected? Then your mojo, your va-va-voom. Everything stops getting up and going and just disappears.”
Then your mojo, your va-va-voom. Everything stops getting up and going and just disappears.
4. Build yourself up
When you feel powerless, take action on things that are within your control. According to Laura Shuckburg, “One of the key things is to recognize and accept that you are in the menopause transition. If you’re in denial, that’s going to make it worse.
“Nutrition, mindset, exercise, and movement become crucial at this time, and how we are managing our stress through things like meditation and mindfulness. All of these things can help a woman have agency over her symptoms and take control.”
Lauren Chiren remembers a former client, a nurse whose confidence had nose-dived. “We worked together to see how could build herself back up, physically and emotionally. She cut out caffeine, increased her water intake, and began a more regular routine to improve her sleep. Then we worked on learning to put herself first.
“By looking back on her incredible achievements, she got to a place where she valued herself and knew the value she offered. She could then go to her employer and say, ‘Look, I’m going through menopause. This is the way it’s impacting me, these are the things I’ve done to help myself. This is what I need from you.’ She demonstrated that she was taking responsibility for her health and was committed to the job, but that she needed them to be committed to her as an employee as well.”
She demonstrated that she was taking responsibility for her health and was committed to the job, but that she needed them to be committed to her as an employee as well.”
5. Arm yourself with the facts
Knowledge is power, so do your research before you talk about menopause at your workplace. Lauren Chiren said, “Get the language prepared in advance of the conversation. Have a list of symptoms in front of you. Get the core information, the facts and figures, the ages and stages – all of these things are critical.”
As well as the skills and experience you bring, remember your value can be measured in blunt dollars and cents. Replacing you is likely going to cost time and money, and if you’ve been with the organization for a while, they will be losing institutional knowledge too. Your employer might already know they need to get on board – help them by speaking their language.
“There’s a spike in women leaving work aged 45 – 55 because they’re not able to access the right help and support for menopause at work,” Lauren Chiren says. “For every person you lose, it’s going to cost more to replace them. A business doesn’t want to lose someone they have invested to recruit, train and bring along through the organization. It’s a simple business case.”
Remind your employer that changes needn’t involve great cost. “There’s much that workplaces can do,” says Laura Shuckburgh, including:
- Providing easy access to water
- Providing desk fans or temperature-controlled rooms
- Putting someone who’s in menopause by a window
- Staggering lunch hours
- Thinking about uniforms, if that’s a factor
- Having a quiet space where someone can go just to take five minutes if they are struggling, having a hot flash, or feeling anxious
She points out that flexible work options can help those with menopause symptoms manage their workload more easily, “If an employee is not sleeping properly, ask when she’s going to be most productive. Can she work then?”
Naomi says, “Some of those things would have been great but the most important thing for me was just to get it on paper that I hadn’t suddenly become less of an asset. I was experiencing something universal for women, but which would eventually have an endpoint. It was a transition, a stage.”
6. Think big
Pay it forward by changing the culture. Consider asking your employer to put a menopause policy in place to help those coming up behind you. With a bit of luck, you’ll be pushing at an open door.
“Business owners want to retain and attract new talent in a changing work environment, and having a menopause policy is key to that,” says Laura Shuckberg. “And not just as a tick box exercise, it needs to be a real culture change.” Awareness training so that line managers feel comfortable discussing menopause is critical, she believes, alongside other culture-shifting measures.
“Having someone within the workplace who’s a key point of contact and who can signpost people to internal and external resources. Having posters up that talk about menopause so that it’s openly discussed, these are so important.”
7. Know your rights
With luck, your employer will be scrambling to support you. But if not or you think they don’t know their responsibilities, then understand the law.
“There were more successful tribunals citing menopause in the first half of 2021 than the whole of 2020,” Lauren Chirens adds. Menopause and work is a hot social and legal issue right now, and not only because increasing numbers of women are holding bad employers to account.
8. Focus on the future
If menopause is getting you down, remember things might be hard now but the future could be brilliant.
“This is just a transition, and it’s not going to last forever,” reminds Laura Shuckburgh. “Even if you feel very lost and you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, know that there is one. Know that there are ways to get through this transition, and come out stronger.”
Lauren Chiren agrees. “I see menopause as a badge of honor – a way to truly step into your personal power. You’ve already achieved an incredible amount. You’re rich with skills, knowledge, and experience. You’ve done that while you’ve had monthly cycles to contend with. Imagine what you’ll be able to do when you haven’t.”
“This is a time to re-emerge,” adds Laura Shuckburg, “a time to look at what’s working in your life and what’s not. And actually, if you can start to manage your menopause – this is a time to fly.”