Discussing Menopause at Work
“I find it difficult to get support or express the need for support at the workplace as gender-related health issues such as this could be perceived as a weakness and could provide the basis for lack of promotion and ability to perform. I definitely feel older women are disadvantaged in the workplace.”
If you were to Google a definition for menopause, this is what would pop up: “The ceasing of menstruation.” Seriously? Wow. No problem, right? That sounds easy enough; the cessation of something tiresome and messy and inconvenient. Cool. Bring it on.
Now try Googling the definition for the common cold: “A common viral infection in which the mucous membrane of the nose and throat becomes inflamed, typically causing running of the nose, sneezing, a sore throat, and other similar symptoms.”
Interestingly, your average cold, which can last anywhere from 3 to 7 days, describes more symptoms than menopause, which can last anywhere from 10 months to four years. What about all these other menopause symptoms you vaguely hear about? They are not listed in the definition. In fact, that definition only mentions the cessation of something and not the commencement of anything. But what about the hot flashes (flushes), the night sweats, the sleepless nights, the achy joints, the weight gain, the memory loss, the low self-esteem, the lack of motivation, the sudden lack of confidence? Or the bloating, the weak bladder, loss of libido, mood swings, fatigue, hair loss or thinning, changes in body odor, irregular heartbeat? What about depression, anxiety, irritability, panic disorder, breast pain, headaches, itchy, crawly skin, osteoporosis?
Many years ago, women rarely discussed what they were going through. It was called “The Change” and you were expected to suffer quietly, regardless of how many symptoms you had, even though several of these symptoms are debilitating and downright scary. Nowadays, some may say that taking hormone-replacement therapy (HRT) to alleviate all or most of these symptoms is unnatural. What is also considered unnatural is today’s women are living well into their 80s – a full thirty years beyond menopause!
The quiet suffering may soon be a thing of the past. Earlier in 2014, a group of researchers conducted a study entitled Women, Work and the Menopause: Releasing the Potential of Older Professional Women. The study was conducted across three universities, with subjects quite similar to us here at McGill in terms of workforce demography. A fascinating read, the study not only covers the stresses of menopause in the workforce but it discusses prevalent and commonplace realities of having to work through symptoms and the societal perceptions we share. There should be nothing wrong with calling in and saying we suffered an especially sleepless menopausal night. We should not hesitate to cancel a meeting on Lower Campus because our menopausal joints ache or to postpone an interview because, frankly, our menopausal head is just not there today, sorry! It may sound funny but all three examples are socially acceptable excuses that work quite nicely with a common cold!
As the study will attest, we need to keep in mind the reality that women of menopausal age are very valuable workforce assets. Despite having to sometimes endure the hardships of menopause, they enjoy the highest job satisfaction and are the most motivated and ambitious in terms of career advancement. They are also the keepers of vast amounts of institutional knowledge. These all translate into very positive points for any employer. In fact, they may arguably be an employer’s most valuable and productive group! So allowing them to know it’s okay to have symptoms, it’s okay to not be yourself sometimes, it’s okay to work from home when needed, is a nice way for an employer to show their appreciation. Providing a small fan on every desk would be an awesome way of saying, “We value you, and we know what you’re going through”, without marginalizing them. It would be a wonderful start, wouldn’t it?
Excerpts from the study:
“…I think menopausal women who have a hot flush are a lot more self- conscious about it than they need to be. […] Having gone through (menopause) I’m a little bit more sensitive …”
“It did affect my confidence for a while because I’d be in a meeting and I’d be looking at someone and then I’d go blank. For example someone’s name, I’d be talking about reporting back or talking about a conversation that I had with someone and I’d just go blank on that name.”
“I think it should be a time of recognition of a different age of a woman but I think it’s more a disappearing of women. I have had thoughts that maybe I would be less able to be employed because of my age. I think that generally, menopausal women are invisible, certainly as objects of beauty.”
After writing this article, I spoke with a few fellow McGill employees and heard some great suggestions. One of them was the possible formation of a support group on campus, a place where women could seek additional information about menopause and/or discuss their current situation. Another was a departmental sensitization and information sharing, as is often done when a co-worker may have a disability or a security concern. A few areas are already well informed and are proactive in sharing info with their male counterparts, yet this is a rarity. It would be great to see a campus-wide initiative, perhaps under the Health and Wellness banner.
– Lynda Bray, VP MUNACA