Negotiating the workplace can be the trickiest aspect of the menopause for a lot of women. Almost three-quarters (72 per cent) of us feel unsupported at work. One in five say it has a damaging effect on their work, and a whopping one in ten have considered leaving their jobs.
The survey by Nuffield Health questioned 3,275 women aged 40 to 65. Two-thirds were experiencing hormonal changes that were making them behave differently or having a detrimental effect on their life.
Rachel, 53, a brand consultant from Ealing, is one of those for whom things got so bad she almost quit her job. She shares her story.
“I thought I’d got off lightly with the menopause. My cycle became irregular and stopped completely when I was 52. I had a short spell of night sweats, then a few months of hot flushes, and I still sleep badly.
“I got some funny looks on the Tube when I’d pull a paper fan out of my handbag while everyone else was sitting there in coats. But the flushes were mild and short-lived compared with many women so I still felt I’d been fortunate. But I was unprepared for the emotional rollercoaster that was to come.”
“One Saturday morning, while getting dressed, a wave of depression stopped me dead in my tracks. I burst into tears with one overwhelming thought filling my head: that I didn’t want my life.
“I kept thinking, over and over, ‘I don’t want this life, I don’t want this life.’ Everything felt futile, meaningless and repetitive. I wasn’t doing anything that was making me or anyone else happy. I was stuck.
“I felt like I had to do something drastic to change my life, and I had to do it today. I literally wanted to step out of my own skin.
“It was so out of the blue I knew it was my hormones. Eventually I stopped crying and called my friend Sarah. She didn’t try to give advice, thankfully. She understood how crap I felt: she’d been hit hard by the menopause that same week.
“What a relief, to share how we felt and wallow in the crap-ness, together. We were soon laughing at ourselves and our damned hormones.
“She was such a support in the next few weeks. We would text each other and rate our days out of ten: ‘6/10 today, not too bad.’ ‘I’m only a 4. Might jump off the balcony.’“
“The workplace was a different matter. Most of the staff were male, and younger. Work is the place we spend most of our week, but there was no one there I could share my day-to-day experience or feelings with.
“It didn’t help that one of the bosses had an anger problem and would flare up and shout at people. Previously I didn’t take it personally, but now I couldn’t stand it. One day, being pressured to do something I didn’t know how to do, I burst into tears at my desk.
“I was upset at how I was being treated, and upset that in a testosterone-fuelled environment they might see me as a silly, weak female. It was a company where if your face didn’t fit they’d get rid of you without notice.
“I cried in the loo several times, upset at the way people behaved to each other, and to me. When they had rows it really affected me, but there was no way I was going to tell male colleagues I was a hot hormonal mess so please be nice. I wasn’t thriving and I’d lost the emotional resilience to do anything about it.”
“Thankfully, the office environment changed for the better and women joined the team. I became less exhausted, the low moods passed, and my emotions calmed down.
“But then, some months later, the paranoia kicked in. I felt sure I was being left out of projects and decision making, and that tasks I would normally do were being given to other staff. One manager would talk to colleagues right next to me about projects I was involved in but not include me. I felt undermined and ignored.
“I read an article that said being ignored by your boss is worse than being bullied. That struck a chord. It also said it’s a sign he wants you out, which really fuelled the paranoia.
“At the same time, my body didn’t look like it used to, my face had aged a lot in a year, and I felt like I wasn’t myself. So many times I wanted to leave my desk, go home, curl myself into a little invisible ball on my couch and not come back.
“After it happened a few times realised it was my hormones. Knowing that didn’t stop the paranoia, but I was able to observe it taking hold, like I was watching myself from the outside. I still felt paranoid, but could listen to the rational part of my mind telling me it was being caused by my hormones and would pass.
“Thankfully, this only lasted for a few months. Although I badly wanted to get out of that environment, I equally wasn’t in a stable enough place to change jobs or make major life decisions.
“I couldn’t talk to anyone as that would have been too much attention on me, and I worried about being thought over-emotional; one guy had already labelled me ‘fragile’. Then, once the symptoms are over, you forget and get caught up in life again.
“Yet it’s only by talking about it that other women might recognise it when it happens to them, and be less scared. The menopause is not just hot flushes, and I was unaware that there was such an emotional aspect to it.
“To me, too many office cultures are based on, as Arianna Huffington says in Thrive, “masculine ways of succeeding – fuelled by stress and burnout”, where long hours and other bad habits are so embedded in the culture as to seem normal.
“I think that needs to change across the board, but particularly in relation to women at menopause, where those values are completely out of kilter with what our minds and bodies are telling us we need. Certainly managers need to be educated and aware. At the moment the office is a hard environment for women at menopause.”