With a focus on how organisations should and could be doing more to support women with the menopause at work, Julia McFarland shares a brutally honest piece on her own experiences.
As I sat at my desk with two fans on full blast (one under my desk to blow up my skirt), I wondered whether I would self-combust. I had also had a period for thirteen days. I couldn’t retain any information for longer than about five seconds. I wondered if I was losing control of my body and mind.
This was the first time I realised that menopause for me, had come with a vengeance. I was so fed-up, angry, you name it, I felt it. I was not helped by the fact that reluctantly I had shared my feelings and symptoms with my boss who told me that she had ‘sailed through it’. I just needed to take HRT – that apparently would solve all my problems.
My memory grew increasingly unreliable, and I missed a meeting because I had no memory of arranging it. I couldn’t cope with what was happening to me and felt upset that I didn’t know how to share my feelings with others. My feelings reminded me of when my parents died within four months of each other, and I felt the world was coming to an end.
Why couldn’t I share these feelings? I think it was because I felt ashamed, embarrassed and more than a little panic-stricken. It was this embarrassment that inhibited conversations I needed to have.
When I compared my state of health to how I felt after my bereavement, somehow it had felt that I had a ‘legitimate’ reason with grief for feeling the way I did. With this change, I felt that I didn’t. This was something that I felt I should be able to cope with and not make a fuss.
The attitude that my boss had expressed is not unique to the menopause. I remember my horror when a colleague suffering from severe morning sickness was told ‘that she ought to expect it because it was natural.’ She was furious that her boss had said to her that she had gone through her pregnancies ‘without taking a day off.’ Not everyone has the same experience, symptoms and feelings with their health. Assumptions that people do is infuriating and very unhelpful.
So what can you do to work through the change? The CIPD has helpfully issued guidance, which is a starting point to look for the help you need. The point that they make ‘that women over fifty are the fastest growing group in the workforce’ will focus businesses to deal with this taboo subject.
To address my menopause symptoms I realised that I had to treat it just like having my other health condition – asthma. For me, a variety of things work to relieve my asthma symptoms, and I recognise and am honest with colleagues when my condition is affecting me. When I began to adopt the same approach with the menopause, it helped. Again, this can feel easier said than done, but practice makes perfect.
I realised with the onset of menopause that I needed time to process this change and then practically find solutions that worked for me.
I am writing that last sentence and laughing a bit because it makes it sound easy and it wasn’t. It did take a lot of determination at a time when I was feeling less confident and capable than I normally do. Be kind to yourself and recognise this. Bear in mind the NHS say that symptoms can last from four years on average to as much as twelve years for one in ten. So that’s quite a large variation. Then there are all the symptoms that I haven’t mentioned; I counted about thirty-nine. Some of these are very difficult to talk about not only with health professionals but also with partners and family.
Nonetheless, I do urge you to talk about it. This can be tough. Health practitioners are not always good at helping you to do this. My doctor asked me to go and see a female doctor who was infuriated with his attitude and referred me back to him (he still wouldn’t talk to me). An extreme example but always seems to happen when you are feeling at your most vulnerable. I didn’t give up and explored alternative therapies as well as those that the NHS can offer.
The change to most of my symptoms happened gradually. Not everything is the same, and I have to adjust and acknowledge that. I will feel encouraged when I see barriers are breaking down around menopause in the same way that they are starting to for mental health. All of us have to take responsibility for this and facilitate conversations. Encourage the organisation that you work for to have information available and sign-posted. Make people feel that they don’t need to suffer in silence. Show that you want to understand more and find ways of relieving all the tension and stress that people can experience.
Make practical adjustments. This is a constructive way to move on not only does it help relieve symptoms but it is a tangible acknowledgement that what that person is experiencing is real. It signals that you are prepared to go that extra mile to help them get through this transition. Avoid unhelpful assumptions and educate yourself if you don’t know how to help. I know that my experience is not unique and I realise that my solutions won’t work for everyone. What I hope for is that this will be something that can be talked about openly and it will become the norm that every woman will find what they need to support them.
The fans are turned off now, and I’m feeling tons better. I even remember all my meetings. Make sure that you are part of making your colleagues, family and friends all feel the same. Help them find practical and factually based advice that avoids them feeling that the world is coming to an end and that they will never feel the same again. Help them to feel better.
Julia is an extremely competent HR professional demonstrating exposure of working in HR oriented roles with experience in employee relations, training, people management, change management, performance management and process improvement.