The menopause is a natural stage in every woman’s life, occurring between the ages of 45 and 58 (averaging at 51). Medically, the ‘menopause’ means the last menstrual period, but most women experience symptoms in the years leading up to this time.
With around two-thirds of women aged 50 to 59 in employment, it’s not surprising that ‘the change’ can have a significant effect on the working lives of women in the UK. Younger employees can be affected too.
More research needs to be carried out looking at the impact of the menopause on the working woman and issues around the work environment.
Menopausal symptoms occur when a woman’s natural oestrogen levels fall. The symptoms most likely to affect women at work are hot flushes and night sweats (leading to insomnia), tiredness, aches and pains, urinary frequency and urgency, mood swings, anxiety and depression.
Hot flushes are the most common menopausal symptom1 – 70% of women suffer from them for one year, 30% for five years and 5 to 10% for 10 to 15 years.2 Stress can make hot flushes and night sweats worse.
Dr Sally Hope, GP and expert on The Menopause Exchange panel says: “A bad night of insomnia can mean that you don’t function at work the next day because you are exhausted. Add to this the transient short-term memory loss that oestrogen lack seems to cause, and the once-confident, competent woman feels completely undermined.”
As the handbook Fitness for Work points out, ‘For some women menopausal symptoms may severely affect work performance. Commonly this is because they have failed to seek help and advice.’4
Helping working women
The Working Through the Change study,3 conducted by the TUC in 2003, found that jobs could be making menopausal symptoms worse, yet there was a lack of interest in many workplaces. In the survey of 500 workplace health and safety representatives, information about the menopause was provided by only one in five employers and only 2% of respondents said that health and safety policies covered issues around the menopause.
Employers need to reduce the stigma and embarrassment that may occur when women are in the company of colleagues and clients as they experience hot flushes. By helping menopausal women manage their symptoms, employers can reduce absenteeism, maximise productivity and make the workplace environment as comfortable as possible.
At the menopause, women need to make well-informed decisions about their health in association with their doctor or practice nurse. Some workplaces have occupational nurses, who provide information on the latest research and guidelines.
Coping mechanisms at work may include the use of an electric fan and keeping a water spray nearby. Employers should make sure that uniforms are suitable for women at the menopause (ie, layers that can be removed) and that toilet breaks are not restricted.
Apart from options for coping with the menopause (for example, hormone replacement therapy – HRT, prescription drug alternatives and complementary therapies), health promotion issues need to be addressed.
Kathy Abernethy, senior nurse specialist and expert on The Menopause Exchange panel, says: “If needed, time off for medical appointments can be negotiated, and work environments easily adapted to ensure good ventilation, regular work breaks and access to comfortable sanitary facilities and drinking water.”
“Even better would be an advisor to whom women could turn to for advice. Women at work need to feel that they will be treated by their colleagues in an open and respectful manner, not the butt of jokes as is so often the case. Occupational health departments can lead on this through education of senior managers and when discussing policies and procedures.”
I am a pharmacist and qualified health promotion specialist and present talks on the menopause to employees and healthcare professionals (including occupational nurses).
I founded The Menopause Exchange (www.menopause-exchange.co.uk) in 1999. We are independent and not sponsored by companies or commercial organisations. We provide quarterly newsletters and fact sheets, an information service and an Ask the Experts panel.
My book, The Menopause – ask the experts, was published in 2009. For more information call 020 8420 7245 or email [email protected]
Norma Goldman BPharm. MRPharmS. MSc. (Health Promotion) is founder and director of The Menopause Exchange
1. Pitkin. Menstrual and withdrawal bleeds. The Menopause Exchange newsletter 2009;39:3
2. Hunter & Smith. Under pressure at the menopause. The Menopause Exchange newsletter 2009;41:3
3. Fitness for Work 2000 (p431) edited by R Cox, F Edwards & K Palmer (Oxford University Press)
4. Paul. ‘Working through the change’ study. Hazards Publications Ltd 2003