In recognition of World Menopause Day, Cathy Hastie, author of Working Menopause and advocate for Menopause Mandate, writes an overview of menopause and how we can open up the conversation around its effects on women everywhere.
When I began my menopause transition, around 10 years ago, I thought I was in the early stages of dementia. My usually agile brain was blank at critical moments, and names of people I’ve known for years escaped me. It was years before I got a diagnosis, and even longer to get the treatment that gave me my life (and my brain) back. There was no one I could ask for advice or talk to about what was happening to me. Menopause was not a suitable subject for discussion and people around me just didn’t talk about it. On the rare occasions that it was discussed, information was peppered with myths that ranged from unhelpful, to downright damaging.
A chance experience at work three years ago where I was invited to speak at a panel as both a menopausal woman and an HR professional changed my perspective on menopause. The lack of knowledge and understanding about menopause among the people in the room was shocking and made me realise how important it is to talk about menopause. Following the panel, I had emails from women telling me how relieved they were to finally learn more about what was happening to them, and from men saying that what was happening to their partners and colleagues suddenly made sense. Talking about menopause is important. Really important, especially for women in the middle of the transition, or who have come out on the other side, or for those who will go through it later in their lives, and of course the people who support them. When we talk, we remove stigma and increase knowledge.
There are around 6 million women of peri or menopause age working in the UK. In a workforce of 29.6 million that is a sizable chunk. Many women are struggling at work with their symptoms, and some are looking for a way out altogether.
50% of the population are women.
Whether it’s you, your mum, daughter, sister, friend, we all know someone who has transitioned through menopause. It affects us all, albeit in different ways.
What is menopause?
The NHS describes menopause as the stage when lower levels of hormones, have caused periods to stop for 12 months. You may also have heard the term ‘peri-menopause’, which is the phase prior to periods stopping, and where women experience symptoms, but before periods have stopped for 12 months. Often the process is now referred to as the menopause transition because the whole process is a phase rather than an overnight change.
The most common symptoms of menopause are poor concentration, memory and brain fog, insomnia, joint and muscle pains and aches, low mood, depression and anxiety, irritability, and lowered confidence. It sounds a joy, doesn’t it?! With this level of disruption, it’s not surprising so many women want to leave the workplace and head into a quiet and stress-free retirement. But this isn’t as easy as it sounds.
The state retirement age is rising and there is talk of another rise to age 68 by 2035. Many women don’t have the same level of pension security as previous generations with the move away from final salary pension schemes over the past 10 years. The ability to retire comfortably for future generations will be a very different story, leading to women needing to work for longer or risk financial difficulties.
When I started work in the mid 1980s, I had planned my retirement for around my 60th birthday. I’m now 55, and that is no longer an option. In fact, retirement is a long way off for me. So, what is the solution for those of us working through menopause?
Talk about menopause
Firstly, we can talk about it. In the UK, there is a professional organisation called the British Menopause Society that provides education and information for professionals involved in the treatment and support of menopausal women, but also provides resources and educates groups and workplaces. Every year they organise activities for World Menopause Day on the 18th of October, and this year the theme is ‘Continuing the Conversation’. We can share our stories and help people to understand what menopause is and how it impacts women experiencing the transition, and the people around them. Sharing with other people our experience continues the conversation and helps the next generation to develop awareness of menopause.
When employers create a workplace that is welcoming and supportive to older women it is good for everyone. There simply aren’t enough younger people to fill vacancies and older workers have valuable knowledge and skills to share. My book, ‘Menopause Working’, was written to guide employers, managers, colleagues, and menopausal women, how to navigate the workplace and to create an environment where women can stay and thrive.
We can reimagine retirement for many reasons. With no mandatory retirement age in the UK anymore, and the state pension age rising, the dynamics are different. Many of us want to stay in the workplace, but not in the same way – full time and full-on. We can work part-time and flexibly around our other interests and commitments and have second careers, bringing new people and opportunities into our lives.
After thirty-five years at work, I’m working part time and have begun a new career. I’m not ready to retire and nor can I afford to, but these changes to my work life have given me new energy and excitement about work. I’m thinking about it in the way that Serena Williams described the end of her tennis career after Wimbledon this year. Not as in terms of retirement but as an evolution to the next phase. That phase will include more time with my friends, more of my hobbies and interests, and learning a new and exciting role in the workplace.
There is no doubt that for many women, the menopause transition can be enormously disruptive and challenging, but it doesn’t have to be the end of anything. The more we talk about it and share our experiences, the more understanding we create, breaking down the stigma, and by doing this we are lightening the load for a group of people that are very important to society, their families, and the workplace. Continuing the conversation opens a whole new world for all of us.
For more information on how to look after your general health, book your place on our upcoming ‘Nutrition with Valentina‘ session.