Why it’s time the menopause was taken seriously in the workplace

·7-min read
Tracy Wills: ‘I just didn’t have the energy to keep on my ‘game face’ every day’ - Jay Williams for The Telegraph
Tracy Wills: ‘I just didn’t have the energy to keep on my ‘game face’ every day’ - Jay Williams for The Telegraph

Tracy Wills was in a conference with eight senior colleagues. A business analyst for a finance company in her mid 40s, she went round the room introducing everyone. “I got to one man, who I worked with every day, and I simply couldn’t remember his name,” she says. “Then I forgot the names of two others.”

Add this to the constant misplacing of passwords and the clumsiness (“People kept asking if I was drunk”), Wills suspected her symptoms were down to the menopause, something a GP confirmed, but unable to tolerate HRT, she simply had to struggle on.

Her symptoms got progressively worse, and by the time she was 49, she felt she had no choice but to leave her job. “My confidence was so low, I couldn’t continue,” she says. “I was exhausted. I just didn’t have the energy to keep on my ‘game face’ on.”

New statistics confirm that Wills is in good company. According to a survey by The Latte Lounge, an online platform for midlife women, and health provider Fertifa, 42 per cent of women have considered leaving their jobs because of the menopause. Of those remaining, half the respondents said they had experienced decreased job satisfaction, and four in 10 were less engaged.

“None of these findings have surprised me in the least, sadly,” says Katie Taylor, CEO of The Latte Lounge, who left her own job in communications after suffering years of low mood, exhaustion, and heart palpitations. “As of next year, one in six employees will be women over 50. But I’ve been hearing these stories for years. Menopause has historically been seen as a taboo – as mental health used to be.”

The numbers bear this out. Thirteen million UK women are menopausal, yet only one third visit their GP to get support. In the new survey, 70 per cent of women refused to speak to their employer about their symptoms. A quarter were “too embarrassed” and 28 per cent “feared it would make them look incapable.” When Wills, from Bristol, told a former male manager what she was going through, “he looked at me like I was an alien.”

The mental health comparison is appropriate, with many companies now focused on ‘wellbeing’. Taylor feels it’s vital that staff also enjoy a better understanding of menopause, beyond the obvious clichés. “One friend of mine told her boss she was going through the menopause. He told her he would arrange for her to get a desk fan,” sighs Wills.

Dr Gidon Lieberman, a consultant at London’s Whittington Hospital and deputy medical director at Fertifa, says: “Most people tend to instantly think of hot flushes when it comes to the menopause,” he says. “In truth, it’s the impairment to mental wellbeing that can be the most debilitating.” This is because the dip in oestrogen levels can cause changes in the brain – and broken nights, which are also associated with hormonal fluctuation, exacerbate the ‘fogginess’. “It’s in this area that workplaces should really be focusing their efforts when it comes to supporting their employees,” says Lieberman.

Davina McCall - Andrew Crowley for The Telegraph
Davina McCall - Andrew Crowley for The Telegraph

That menopause is not simply hot flushes is something Davina McCall emphasised in her recent Channel 4 documentary Sex, Myths and the Menopause. In an interview with The Telegraph she described feeling as though “I was losing my mind – I forgot how to read an autocue at work; I thought I was getting dementia.”

McCall is the latest of several high-profile women to speak publicly about the debilitating impact on their physical and mental health. BBC presenters Kirsty Wark and Louise Minchin have hosted highly personal programmes on their experiences. Zoe Ball has spoken about having her first symptoms at work, during an interview with Al Pacino and Robert de Niro no less. Meg Mathews launched an online community after discovering she had been suffering with 32 of the 34 little known symptoms, including burning mouth, hair loss and low libido. While Gabby Logan, currently presenting the BBC’s Olympic coverage, has spoken of her “increased anxiety”, which can “lead to women deciding to quit their careers at a point when actually they should be pushing on.”

Earlier this year, Sophie Wessex became the first Royal to address the menopause, admitting that it felt as though someone had “taken her brain out”. Indeed, according to the new survey, impaired cognitive function is more problematic than physical symptoms. Women reported ‘brain fog’ (87 per cent), anxiety (86 per cent) and low mood (77 per cent.)

“I felt completely overwhelmed... When I talked to the specialist, she said she often gets phone calls from female CEOs screaming, ‘I need help now! I’m losing my mind!’,” actress Gillian Anderson said in an interview in 2017.

Harriet’s* symptoms started early, with irregular periods in her late 30s, but a gynaecologist told her there was “no need to worry”. At the time, the 47-year-old from Nottingham was a middle manager in the civil service, but when her employer relocated, she decided to take a “stress-free” admin job. “I didn’t realise it, but I was already suffering with a loss of confidence,” she says.

When her daughter started secondary school, Harriet became a secretary for a busy GP practice. “I was overwhelmed and in tears every day,” she says. “But I’d managed a team when I worked for the civil service, so I knew I could work to a high standard.” After three months of struggling, and suspecting she had depression, Harriet handed in her notice. At no point did she discuss her problems with her boss. “She was a woman a few years older than me and had surely been through this herself. But I was too intimidated to bring it up.”

Finally, with time to think, she started to wonder whether her problems might be hormone-related. She saw her GP, who gave her a blood test. “He told me my FSH levels [the hormones that regulate the menstrual cycle] were sky high and I was going through the menopause,” she says. After starting HRT, she now works for a property company and feels “back to my old self”.

Taylor hopes the survey results will encourage companies to take action. “Only 16 per cent of women were aware their companies had a menopause policy,” she says. “Fifty-one per cent said there was nothing in place, and a third weren’t sure.’ She describes a menopause policy as similar to maternity leave – with the option of flexible hours, shorter meetings and cotton uniforms, where they are worn, instead of sweat-inducing artificial fibres.

The Latte Lounge offers information for big companies on implementing menopause policies and organises talks for staff. “I recently spoke to 350 people at a tech company. Many were men, asking questions so they could support their mothers and partners, as well as their colleagues,” she says. “We’re seeing great engagement”.

After two-and-a-half years at home, Wills, now 53, decided to return to work. “I was open about the fact my career break had been due to menopause symptoms,” she says. “I applied for 15 jobs with no luck. Then I came across Hargreaves Lansdown, a financial services company with a menopause policy. The woman who hired me told me I was being offered the job on the strength of my experiences.”

Such good-news stories cheer Taylor, who feels the term ‘menopause’ is outdated and should be replaced with ‘oestrogen deficiency disease’. “But really, we don’t want a label,” she adds. “We just want to feel like our old selves again, excel at our jobs and enjoy life.”

For more information on The Latte Lounge see here

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