Menopause? It’s No Big Deal. Just Don’t Fire Me If I Forget How To Switch My Computer On

Photo by Harold Julian

A new EHRC directive on menopause effectively puts an end to discrimination in the workplace for women experiencing severe symptoms. It proves that it’s good to talk about it, argues Kathleen Baird-Murray – even at work.

They say that ignorance is bliss. When it came to the menopause, for so long that seemed to be the collective response to something perceived as so awkward, shameful and debilitating that it was best not talked about at all. But blissful ignorance is no longer a safe place to hide for employers, if the recent Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) directive on menopause is anything to go by. The announcement last week that employers have a responsibility to protect staff struggling with symptoms shines such a dazzlingly bright light on menopause that it only serves to highlight my own generation’s experience of navigating it as the dark secret it used to be. Too many women are leaving their jobs because of difficulties with navigating menopause, and this new directive will offer protection for the one in 10 women aged between 40 and 60 whose anxiety, mood swings, brain fog, hot flushes and irregular periods have substantially impacted their ability to carry out their work.

Of course, much has already been done to dispel the taboo around the topic, thanks to the very vocal campaigning of women like Davina McCall, Mariella Frostrup and Carol Vorderman. One friend of mine – let’s call her Anne – a corporate lawyer in the male-dominated telecommunications industry who is now in her early 60s, recalls being at work drinks with her team three years ago, and being by how openly menopause was being discussed. “One of my female colleagues, in her early 50s, said, ‘I’m getting a hot flush here.’ Another colleague, a man in his 50s, said, ‘Oh, my partner has those all the time.’ A much younger male colleague then joined in, showing concern and asking questions. I thought to myself, ‘Gosh! Things have really changed!’”

When Anne was going through menopause, around 10 years ago, things were very different. “I’m frequently the only woman in the room, and always the only woman in the room sitting at the senior table. It’s a very macho culture where just being a woman makes you vulnerable to verbal attack – although it is trying to change,” she says. “When my menopause started I had terrible anxiety, coupled with palpitations. I remember going to work one day and my anxiety was so bad, I couldn’t breathe. My job was stressful. I left the office in floods of tears and had to walk randomly for about two hours before ringing a friend – I just needed to talk to someone.” Anne felt too embarrassed to say anything about what she was going through at work. She was referred to a heart specialist because her job was stressful and given “every test under the sun”, then prescribed drugs to calm her palpitations, before finally one friend suggested she look into menopause. “It was a very lonely time.”

Would her experience have been any better in a more female-dominated work environment? I myself went through a phase of getting migraines so bad I’d have to lie down every other week for a few hours in the infamous sick room at Vogue House while I was working there. I wore huge dark glasses and soldiered on, waiting for the shards of Swarovski crystal that broke up my vision to segue into the paralysing headaches that inevitably followed. Several women there were the same age as me, if not older, and yet no one mentioned menopause – at least not to me. Was it blissful ignorance of our symptoms, I wonder now, or just a feeling that if we didn’t talk about it, it might just go away?

A few years later, in a role on another glossy women’s magazine, I noticed how my colleagues in their 30s would come into work, fire up their computers and immediately get stuck in to whatever they had been working on the day before. Meanwhile, I couldn’t remember what I’d been working on. Coffee helped, but for the most part, a foggy sort of anxiety would leave me staring at a blank screen, or rifling through a notebook in search of a clue. I felt stupid but put it down to stress, and wondered if this was perhaps not very inspiring for the team I was meant to be leading. Did they notice?

It seems odd now that in those mostly female environments we wouldn’t have shared what we were going through, especially when we could talk about relationships, children, careers, sex, periods – pretty much anything. But I suspect that, like me, my colleagues either didn’t clock it, or didn’t think there was much point in sharing. We were the generation for whom HRT was only just emerging from a period of vilification. With hindsight though, it seems sad we missed out on that opportunity, especially when we could confide in one another about everything else.

While going through a divorce in my late 40s, and with teenagers to bring up on my own, I eventually borrowed the money to see a private gynaecologist (NHS doctors weren’t covering menopause as extensively as they are now). I’d always taken a natural approach to everything – never taken so much as a sleeping tablet, avoided antibiotics, gave birth naturally – and now here I was signing up for whatever they could prescribe. “I cannot fall apart,” I said. “Too much going on. So please, just prescribe what you think I need to get me through it – I need to look like I can keep it all together.”

For Anne, HRT also came as a relief – at least initially. “I remember being on a family holiday, and the jet lag had made my menopausal symptoms far worse. I lay on the bed crying hysterically, my heart felt like it was coming out of my throat. My sister-in-law took one look at me and said, ‘Let’s get you that HRT.’ She also found CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) helpful. Sadly for Anne, she can no longer take HRT after a brush with breast cancer (which her oncologist reassured her was not caused by the HRT). She doesn’t regret taking it and is happy to see that women going through menopause now are having an easier time in the workplace.

“I’ll sit in a meeting now and sometimes if a female colleague is having a hot flush, she will mention it,” she says. “It’s not a big thing. It’s been normalised. And all the men will nod and acknowledge it without making a big deal about it.”

As for me, even with HRT I still have moments when the fog descends, names escape me, and anxiety – something I was lucky to never suffer from before menopause – keeps my mind running fast and furious for hours, particularly first thing in the morning. But at least one thing’s for sure, now when I turn on the computer at work and silently panic for a few moments, I can’t be fired for it. And as someone who is often the older woman in the office, I’m here to provide reassurance for anyone who needs it. It’s no big deal.

This article was originally published on British Vogue.

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