The current retirement age for a woman in the UK is 65, with the government planning to increase it to 67 over the next ten years.
This means that a woman might spend as much as 15 menopausal years in the office, with a further 10 peri-menopausal years before that! Bearing in mind that this could entail 25 years of office life handling menopausal symptoms to some degree, how can it be possible that a quarter of women have considered leaving work as a result of side effects? And a further two-thirds report receiving zero support in the office environment.
With employers and employees alike uncomfortable with discussing a topic so intimate as a woman’s menopausal symptoms, it’s key to redefine how the office and older women can work together. Especially now that women account for 47 per cent of the workforce, with 3.5 million women over 50 employed nationally. And, with more and more women taking up management positions and it being recognised that female board members have a financially positive effect, perhaps the power balance is edging towards being redressed, even if it’s estimated that the global pay gap won’t have been done away with for another 202 years.
As a menopause doctor based in central London, I have given talks to employers and businesses on the subject. I also speak with hundreds of women who are struggling with the side effects of the menopause. One thing that always comes up, no matter what, is how their self-confidence has been damaged as a result of symptoms. As we all know, self-confidence is a necessary factor for maintaining any kind of presence in the office especially if you are a female employee. Women need self-confidence to ask for a promotion, to speak out in meetings and more generally, to make their voices heard.
When sleepless nights, a side-effect of hot flushes, rear their ugly heads, the knock-on effects can feel overwhelming. Memory problems and irritability follow close behind and when coupled with stress from management and the pressure to hide that anything is wrong, all this can lead to depression. What could initially manifest as the need to keep a constant ‘to-do list’ going, can transform into what I call ‘brain fog’, the inability to think clearly sometimes due to insomnia. I’ve had patients come to me saying they feel as if they’re ‘losing their minds’, even asking whether they might have dementia off the back of this.
There are 34 menopausal symptoms, some are physical, and some are mental. The good news is, many of them can be lessened or controlled with the correct treatment. Remember, each woman will experience the menopause differently, but every woman will go through it. And while HRT is appropriate for some cases, other women prefer an all-natural approach.
First and foremost, I emphasise treating the menopause early, before the symptoms become overwhelming and perhaps lead to quitting a job, taking time off, missing a promotion or any of the above. There are some quick-ish fixes I always recommend to counter-balance side-effects. Reducing alcohol intake is a big one and can have a massive effect on hot flushes and sleep. A dietary and exercise regime can also help with sleepless nights and mental health issues like anxiety.
Then, there’s vaginal dryness. It’s obvious that this isn’t something to raise at the next board meeting, still, the symptoms can cause pain to women which in some cases can become unbearable. The symptoms of menopause can be debilitating and if you find them uncomfortable to contemplate, imagine how women who experience them are feeling. The depletion of oestrogen in menopause can cause thinning hair and nails, fragile skin as well as vaginal dryness. Luckily, vaginal dryness can be can be treated with hormone-free, natural products like those created by the YES YES Co – which I always recommend for intimate health. Let’s begin breaking down taboos when it comes to a woman’s body; suffering pain while at work is something that needs to be addressed and if it means a few extra breaks, or a standing workstation, or an exercise ball instead of an office chair for women, then so be it.
It is becoming more and more widely accepted that flexible working hours are the future and when it comes to handling the menopause, these can be a godsend. Breathable uniforms will allow women to survive hot flushes in the workplace without feeling hot and sweaty. The simple addition of fans and air conditioning can show that employers are willing to listen and with recent studies revealing that women and men run at different core temperatures anyway, it should be common sense to install systems in a functioning office that ensure all staff perform at their best.
Honest dialogue about better company policies around the menopause will enable a huge section of the workforce to continue to contribute into their fifties and sixties. This in turn will benefit women and men alike. To disregard the knowledge and experience of staff members that may have been with the company for a significant amount of time is the definition of shooting yourself in the foot. Good employers know that women are key to their business and should be keen to retain their talent.
About the author
Dr Shahzadi Harper, menopause doctor and women’s health expert explains how many relationships are being destroyed by menopausal symptoms. Having worked in the field for 5 years and as a doctor for 24 years, she describes the early warning signs and how to avoid needlessly suffering. Dr Harper runs her own clinic (www.theharperclinic.com) and speaks on podcasts and at conferences on women’s health.