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Menopause can make work a struggle. So why don’t we talk about it?

Thirty years into a very successful corporate career, Janelle Delaney suddenly lost her confidence.

She was preparing for an important interview to become an executive in her company, but found she couldn’t concentrate and began spontaneously crying. She worried she’d burst into tears on the day.

“[It] was horrendous. It wasn’t like anything I’d ever experienced,” she tells RN’s This Working Life.

When Ms Delaney visited her doctor, the diagnosis was simple.

“The hormonal imbalance of perimenopause [the lead-up to menopause] meant I couldn’t deal with this very out-of-the-ordinary stressful situation I was in, in the same way that I usually would have,” she says.

“It was something I’d never heard talked about in my workplace … [and] I really didn’t know what sort of reaction or support I would get if I spoke out about it.”

Once Janelle understood what was happening and received appropriate treatment, her symptoms subsided and she got the promotion.

But the significant symptoms of menopause can see women miss out on job opportunities, leave their roles altogether or suffer at work in silence.

A woman with brown hair and red shirt rests a hand on her furrowed brow while the other holds papers. Her eyes are closed.
Many women don’t feel that they can speak up at work about their menopause symptoms.(Getty: FG Trade )

Some women argue that discussing the effects of menopause only increases their exposure to sexism and ageism in the workplace.

Others say without talking about it, many women will continue to face barriers holding them back in their careers.

What’s the big deal with menopause?
Menopause (when monthly menstruation has ceased for 12 months), and perimenopause, cause fluctuating hormone levels. And those pesky hormones are responsible for a range of symptoms.

They might include hot flushes, night sweats, insomnia, weight gain, mood changes, anxiety, depression, brain fog and weakened short-term memory.

Melissa MacGowan’s menopause symptoms – sleepless nights, hot flushes in meetings and increased anxiety – were so challenging, she left her leadership role because of them.

Closely cropped image of a woman with shoulder-length auburn hair, smiling.
Melissa MacGowan’s menopause symptoms caused her to leave her job.(Supplied )

“I was the only female on a team of six male executives, in a pretty male dominated industry and environment [and] my first instinct in that situation was to keep things relatively to myself,” Ms MacGowan says.

“I played my cards pretty close to my chest. I [didn’t want] to be seen to be having additional challenges.”

She felt isolated and the stress of dealing with her situation became too high to sustain.

But with adequate support, she says she could have moved through perimenopause “without it being such a debilitating and negative, crushing experience”.

A gender equity issue
Sydney Colussi researches menopause and menstrual leave at the University of Sydney.

She says there’s a “really harmful fiction [of an] ideal and bodiless worker who has no reproductive health issues and therefore has no reproductive care obligations”.

“In fact, it’s just a reality that all workers, regardless of age or gender, are going to have to address reproductive health issues at some stage or another,” she says.

A woman with long brown hair wearing a blue shirt stands near a tree smiling.
Sydney Colussi says the lack of support in many workplaces for women with menopause symptoms is unacceptable.

Ms Colussi rejects the notion of the “ideal worker” and would like to see workplaces become more supportive places for older workers.

She says a 2020 British Medical Association report surveying 2000 doctors about the effects of menopause at work found the majority received no support from their employer to help manage their menopause symptoms.

As a result, Ms Colussi says, doctors were “reducing hours, leaving management roles, moving to lower paid positions, or just retiring early from the profession”.

She says that not only negatively impacts gender diversity in the medical profession, but contributes to the gender pay gap.

“I think that we should all accept that that isn’t OK, and that we need to address that,” she says.

Creating menopause-friendly workplaces
Thea O’Connor, a wellbeing and productivity advisor who runs menopause training for managers, says there’s often a generational divide among women when it comes to menopause and the workplace.

A woman with shoulder-length brown hair, wearing a blue shirt, stands smiling with arms folded.
Thea O’Connor says some older women are fearful of showing what might be perceived as weakness at work.(Supplied )

Those in their mid-50s wonder why no-one’s talking about this, while those slightly older, who have struggled to achieve a level playing field for women at work, are wary of any inferred weakness or vulnerability.

Promisingly, she says, the generation coming through now are confident about their value as a worker and can articulate their needs.

To those determined to not show “weakness” for fear it betrays the work women have done to achieve more equitable workplaces, Ms O’Connor’s response is simple:

“I really think that the deepest betrayal is when we betray our own bodies,” she says.

“And it’s our bodies that are our only instrument for work. If we continue to deny and betray that, that’s actually not good for anyone.”

A sign reads: "We are a menopause friendly workplace."
Simple steps can create a more menopause-friendly workplace.(ABC News: Alison Branley )

That’s not to suggest that sexism and ageism don’t exist in some workplaces. Someone who raises their menopause issues at work can increase their risk of experiencing both.

Ms O’Connor says she accepts that, in some contexts, talking about menopause could provide “more stereotypes on which to judge women not fit for work”.

But she believes that can be countered by educating people about the risks of ignoring menopause – and the benefits of creating “menopause-friendly workplaces”.

If a woman isn’t supported to have time to go to the doctor or to have flexible work arrangements, “her health and wellbeing will suffer”, Ms O’Connor says.

“But the cost to organisations can also be really high. We know, for example, that organisations who have more women at the top perform better financially.”

A place for menopause policies
Although menstrual leave has a long history, beginning in Russia 100 years ago, menopause policies are a fairly recent phenomenon.

Mary Crooks heads up the Victorian Women’s Trust, which four years ago became one of Australia’s first organisations to implement a menstrual and menopause policy.

Against a grey background, a short-haired woman from the torso up stands, wearing black jacket and white shirt, smiling widely.
Mary Crooks’ workplace instituted one of Australia’s first menopause policies.(Supplied )

She says her organisation’s three-tiered policy is “very simple”.

If someone is feeling uncomfortable at work while having a period or menopausal symptoms, they have permission to move around the office to find a place where they can rest.

Or, if it would be better not to be in the office, they can work remotely.

Finally, if someone is feeling so uncomfortable that it would be better not to work on that day, they can access up to 12 days of annual paid menstrual leave.

“It’s not an illness. So you shouldn’t have to use sick leave,” Ms Crooks says.

She argues the need for more empathic work culture, where colleagues look out for one another, and are encouraged to self-care.

“It’s not a criminal offence, it’s not a hanging offence to go through menopause,” she says.

But it is a fundamental right to be comfortable and supported in the workforce – a right Ms Crooks says everyone should enjoy.

© 2020 Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved.
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