Episode 145: Working through Menopause

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time…the first of a couple of shows on getting older in the workplace.

“You know it's crazy that the majority of women are going to go through menopause and yet it can seem like a really lonely place. It's not a topic that's discussed enough even amongst friends.”

At work, traditionally, menopause has been something to be borne – but not talked about. But maybe that’s part of the problem…

“We play at being superhuman all the time. And I think if more of us can have these honest conversations then there's less chance of us being discriminated against.”

Coming up on The Broad Experience.

So I honestly don’t think I’d ever heard the word peri-menopause until the end of last year. That’s when I came across an article in the New York Times called Puberty for the Middle Aged. In it the author talked about all the weird things that happen to your body on your way to having your last period, which for most women will happen in their early 50s. So perimenopause is sort of the lead up to menopause, if you will.

And I have to admit – and I am betting I am not alone here – that I always kind of thought menopause wouldn’t happen to me. It just seemed so far off…and I had no idea my body would start to prepare itself while I was still in my forties. I had no idea because it seems like no one talks about this. Periods have had a bit of a re-brand in the past couple of years – think all those new menstrual products you’ve heard about, some of them on this show. A new generation of female entrepreneurs has punctured some of the taboo around menstruation. But menopause? Not really. So far I’m not seeing any feminist marketing around menopause. It’s still largely spoken about in whispers – at least in the youth-obsessed US.

But in the UK, things are different.

“My name is Julie Dennis and I am a menopause coach and trainer. And I work with organizations across the UK to help improve the experience of women working through menopause.”

Because of course lots of women going through menopause are working.

And while some of us won’t feel many changes at all as our hormones fluctuate, others will feel a lot. Ever since women have worked outside the home we have carried on, even when we’ve felt exhausted or suddenly become drenched with sweat…but Julie says with an aging workforce in the UK and many women in their 40s and 50s working…it’s time employers learned how to support their female staff through this transition. By doing so she says they’re likely to keep more women in the workplace.

Initially her workshops were more about the women themselves than anyone else – they’d share stories and tips. It was warm and fuzzy but it didn’t really lead anywhere. Now, that’s changing.

“What we're now seeing in the UK is that organisations are looking at menopause policy and guidelines, they’re training line managers so that they're in a position to be able to support staff members working through menopause.”

We’ll talk more about what that looks like in a minute. I wanted to know what the women in Julie’s workshops want to talk about once she gets there. First, she says they want to know how long their various symptoms are going to last.

“And actually I think it's also important that we should point out that one in four, one in five women actually don't notice any symptoms at all, three out of four do. One out of four have experienced symptoms to such a degree they've actually considered leaving the workforce because of the impact that it's had on their career. But typically what women want to know is how long is this going to last, and what they really want to be able to do is to talk. You know it's crazy that the majority of women are going to go through menopause and yet it can seem like a really lonely place. It's not a topic that's discussed enough even amongst friends. So if you can get a roomful of women together at work and get a couple of them just to share their personal stories, there's this kind of massive sigh of relief from everybody in the room, going, Oh my God, it's not just me.”

Typically she says, women who are really feeling those hormonal changes play out…they’re hanging on to their jobs. But they feel like they’re suffering and there’s no support from their workplace – even if they do decide to talk to a manager about what’s going on.

“So for example, there was one lady in a workshop once and…Did you ever commute in London, Ashley?”

AM-T: “Yes.”

“Yes. So you know what the tubes are like, right. So by the time she got to work every morning she was absolutely drenched because of her, her hot flushes were that bad. So she'd get to work, she worked in a wealthy organization so she was able to have a shower when she arrived on the premises but then she'd be late to her desk. So her boss wanted her to get an earlier train to cope with that. Other ladies – I know, right?

Really heavy periods are another symptom that we don't hear talked about quite so much and I've spoken to a couple of ladies who've actually ruined office chairs as a result of having a really heavy period, and just the mortification and embarrassment of having to deal with that. And it's not just the male bosses who don't understand, it is the younger women too, just because they haven't experienced it yet. So I think sometimes we also get a lot of you know, the guys don't understand what's going on, the male line managers, but it's the female line managers who have just as little information about it too.”

AMT: “That bleeding through… it’s something everyone dreads.”

“Just absolutely awful, so one company I've worked with recently, whenever they replace chairs now, or they recover chairs they're recovering them in black. So if anybody ever does have an accident it's not going to be so obvious.”

“We talk about reasonable adjustments both with the women themselves and with the line managers, and all they are, are changes that can be put in place to improve the experience of the employee, and they can be something simple like USB desk fan so you can control your own temperature, environment temperature, without impacting everybody else. It can be something larger like the recovering of office chairs or it can be something like an like an honesty box in the bathroom that's filled with sanitary products. So again anyone who suddenly has an unexpected period can go to the bathroom and know that there’ll be free protection available there to put in place immediately.”

All this sounds feasible in a white-collar workplace where you may sit at a desk all day. But what about women who work in factories or on shifts where they’re on the go all the time? Julie says it’s difficult to break away from a serving position you’re meant to be at for hours, or to leave your desk at a call center other than on set breaks. But some organizations she’s worked with have nixed the need for permission to leave a work station, or provided employees on the go with water bottles, or established a network of so-called ‘menopause champions’ in the workplace.

I was interested to know more about who attends her workshops, and especially whether men show up. She says it’s important not to separate out the women because the whole point of what she does is to de-mystify menopause for everyone…

“…however, they fare much better if they're in their own workshop in a room amongst themselves where they're much more comfortable sharing stories. So we'll do a workshop that’s specifically to support the women experiencing menopause. We'll do another one that's specifically for line managers, talking to them about how to spot symptoms, about what reasonable adjustments could work, what their company’s already got in place, how to have a supportive conversation. You know what you don't do is pull somebody aside and say you know I've noticed this is going on, are you menopausal? You know what it’s like, when you're looking for a red car right, you see red cars everywhere. So when you've been on a course on  menopause you see menopause everywhere. But actually just because the woman is in her late 40s or early 50s and her behavior has changed at work, it's not always going to be menopause. You know it could be bereavement, divorce, there could be anything going on. So it's being aware of the language that you use, and then the third training is a colleague awareness session, and that's where anybody could come to the session so you get men and women, older guys, younger guys in the room…”

AMT: I'm also curious with these sessions are the companies, do they encourage their employees to go or do they say hey you're going to that session because I can see some people, it is a topic that makes a lot of people squeamish.”

“Yeah, I think so too. So it's not a compliance issue at organizations at all, they’re always voluntary, and in the mixed sessions and the colleague awareness sessions it would usually be 90 percent women and 10 percent men. So there's still not many men turning up. And often that's because they think they're not going to be welcome or they are feeling a bit awkward and embarrassed. So that's something that needs to be worked on. And again that's about company culture and sometimes something like a poster campaign can work better than a workshop, you know, just having posters up around the building in places where people will stop and read just some basic facts and advice.”

So just ten percent men…that seems tiny. But Julie says it is a start.

Finally, I wanted to bring up something I often think about.

AM-T: “What interests me and I wonder if this will ever happen, would be to have quite a senior woman, someone who is quite well known, to talk about this, I think that would go a huge way to opening up conversation about menopause, don’t you?”

“Oh, I agree. Absolutely. Be an absolutely marvelous thing to have. What we have got in the U.K. is the rise of celebrity menopause. So we've had quite a few major celebrities and minor celebrities actually, women in their 50s who still are regularly seen on TV, to talk about their menopause experience, and actually over in the States you've got Gwyneth Paltrow doing it as well haven't you? So, and I think you know it's easier for them because they're a personal brand and that's the choice they make. But for the very senior women it is a lot a lot harder. I think still if you are a woman in a very senior leadership position, you don't want to talk about anything that could be perceived as a weakness. So I think it's much harder for them to talk about it. However, what would be great to be great would be to have a senior female leader who said yes, this is what I was struggling with, but this is what I've done and now everything's fine. But I think it's still that, you know, they're reluctant to share any perceived weaknesses, which is unfortunate.”

Because while we are still such a minority in top roles, it seems like women have to keep making out that we’re just like men. Coming up…someone who is bringing radical honestly – and a small fan – into her workplace.

Rebekah Bostan lives and works in London – she’s been in the global energy field for almost 20 years.

And last year she began to notice little things about herself changing. Like how she felt on her commute…

 “…I was on the tube, I started feeling quite hot, I assumed I was developing claustrophobia, you know. I was more irritated than usual with my children and my partner but I assumed that obviously they were just being more irritating than normal. Um, I would forget words in meetings, and I would just think oh, I'm just really tired, I must just take some more time for myself and when I started developing more and more symptoms I started slowly piecing them together and then I think when I started developing day and night sweats that's when it really, I just thought huh what is going on here. This is obviously not normal.”

But Rebekah was only 40. Menopause was far from her mind.

“And I just happened to mention to my mum that I was sleeping really badly and I was waking up quite hot. I was having to open the window. And she just laughed and she was like, oh, that's just perimenopause. And then she kind of dropped the bomb because obviously I was like, well, it can't be perimenopause I'm only just turned 40. And she was like, oh no, I had I was in full blown menopause at 41. And your grandmother was 43.”

Rebecca it seemed was following in their footsteps. She was so relieved to know what was going on – because like a lot of women who start experiencing these things, she had begun to worry about her mental health. Because the stuff we don’t hear much about – until it happens to us – that was what bothered Rebekah most: mood swings, increased anxiety about her job, and memory loss or brain fog. Never ideal, but especially at work, where as Julie Dennis put it, we’re always trying to show the most polished version of ourselves.

“So I think that the memory fog has really hit me since January and is to the point where you know it can be simple words like a fork or a knife to you know obviously much more complicated terminology that I use in my job. And I just you know there is literally a gap and you know it's not like you know you're trying to remember you know your second cousin twice removed kind of you know where obviously you would struggle you literally know that this is a word you commonly use and you can't find it in your head. And then that starts to make you feel quite anxious. You know especially if it happens you know in the world of work, you know I do have to use a lot of technical language and if I don't have those words you know I end up then having to make you know a 10 sentence…sentence in order to you know describe the word I’m trying to find. And that's not really what clients are paying me for, they're playing me to be concise, to give them really good advice. And that's really tricky when that starts to happen. I mean I happen to now use a lot of cheat sheets. So my son happens to have dyslexia and ADHD. So we use a lot of mind maps in my house, and I've actually started using mind maps before meetings, with kind of key words that I really, really don't want to forget before the meeting.”

Recently she was speaking at an event about women and sisterhood. So it was a sympathetic crowd…

“And I was making what I thought was a really good point until I couldn't remember the word that I was building up to. And we were talking actually about careers and how you progressed your careers and the word I was looking for was career pivot. So though I was looking for the word pivot and I was trying to point out that you know you don't always have to leave your job if you're unhappy, you can try and pivot your job to find more interesting tasks. And I could not find the word pivot in my mind and I just had to stop, and you know and that kind of disempowered me at that moment because you know I had been saying things for a few minutes. People were obviously engaged and then I lost that word, and just losing that word just really knocks your confidence.”

AMT: “So how did you come back from that?”

“So then you obviously have to start thinking of other words and then you have these moments of silence which you know I mean I understand that silence obviously feels so much worse to you than it does to other people, they probably think you're taking a breath or you’re thinking you know. You know but for you at that moment you think everyone is just like what is the matter with that woman? Why can't she continue her sentence? And you know so actually because I was in that sympathetic environment, I said you know what, I'm really sorry, I'm going through the perimenopause, I’ve forgotten the word. Can anyone help me out here?”

And they did. Someone came up with ‘pivot.’

But she’s always worried about what clients may think of her when she blanks on a word during a meeting. Rebekah’s been at her current company for 14 years. So she feels pretty comfortable there. And she often deals with her anxiety by asking colleagues for backup.  

“What I’ve started to do is when I have bad days where I wake up and feel like OK, today is gonna be a bit trickier, and I have client meetings, then now I war people I’m with in the meeting ad say if it looks like I’m forgetting a word, can you just try and jump in for me? I mean it’s tricky for the people, I’m asking them to help me in that situation. But I’d much rather they knew there was a risk something was going to happen, rather than that we all sit in silence while I try to remember a technical word.”

Rebekah told me just the other day that she’d had blanked on a technical phrase during a client call shortly after our interview – but while she felt the silence went on forever while she searched for another description, when she asked a colleague about it afterwards he said he hadn’t even noticed.

Meanwhile as you heard, she’s happy to introduce the idea of ‘perimenopause’ at work. And her workplace is 70 percent male.

“So I mean most people actually now in my direct working circle know that I’m perimenopausal now, mainly because I go into most meeting rooms with a USB fan. So it’s kind of almost like my calling card. I don’t have a sign above my head but I have a little fan that follows me around, and either people pretend it’s not there and think curious thoughts, but mostly actually people have engaged with me and said oh, what’s that? Why have you brought that? My previous boss, we happened to be in a meeting last week and I brought my fan in and he was just like, you know, he made some joke about you know the Caribbean or the tropics or whatever. And I said oh, you know, it’s because I’m going through the perimenopause. And he was like, ‘oh my gosh, my wife’s going through the perimenopause and she has these and these symptoms.’ What can I do? What can I do to help her? And it was really interesting because we wouldn’t have had that conversation otherwise.”

Rebekah says it’s rare that she gets a negative reaction, but she was on a client call once, a conference call with others, and she had her fan going in the meeting room.

“Another colleague arrived late. He just said, oh, turn off that fan, it’s going to distract the client. And actually the other colleague who was with me, who was male, said no, Rebekah needs that fan, and we’re going to continue this meeting. You know so I didn’t have to explain myself, and it was really great to have somebody not standing up for me, but just saying, you know what, she’s not doing it because it’s so on-trend to have a USB fan, she’s obviously doing it for a reason.”

Experiencing menopause symptoms as early as Rebekah is can feel really lonely. She doesn’t have any friends going through the same thing. So she took a chance recently – she approached a colleague she didn’t know well, someone she suspected might be in a similar position.

“So I actually reached out to a lady who works in another division in my company today actually. And I very briefly went up to her and said, ‘I'm going to assume something, if I'm totally wrong, let's pretend this conversation didn't happen.’ And I said I think you might have gone through the perimenopause or be going through the perimenopause because she has a USB fan on her desk. And she was like, yes! And then you know, do you want to have lunch? And then we went and sat down and had lunch and that's the only way I could know that potentially she might be going through similar things to me is because she had a fan on her desk.”

AMT: “And how was it, did you talk about it?”

“It was really interesting. I mean she's 46 and she started about five years ago and she's still having you know, hot flashes and memory fog and anxiety and things like that. So obviously for me that made me a little bit anxious because I was thinking wow, I've got maybe five, 10 years of this, how very exciting…But at the same time it was really good to meet somebody who was going through the same thing. They can't always solve the issue you're going through. But to be able to know and see somebody else you know who you know is still at work, and she talked about for example, in her team, if she's had a really bad night her boss is absolutely happy for her to come in an hour or two late so she can catch up on sleep, and then she'll just stay later.”

So that woman also felt comfortable telling her boss about what was going on. But I can only imagine many women will not. Rebekah is a big believer in bringing your whole self to work. But as I said to her…

AMT: “The flipside of that whole bringing yourself to work thing, the culture in the US is very youth-focused…there will be women who would be terrified to let on about menopause because they’re very worried they’re going to be discriminated against. And the next time it comes time for some cuts they’ll be out because they’ve outed herself as someone who is, quote, aging. And that does happen.”

“I'm absolutely of no doubt it happens and I think also for example, I work in a very corporate environment, but for example if you work in an environment where you have to wear a uniform or something, where you literally do have to ask for an adjustment in order to continue your job, that must be a really scary conversation. But we've got to have these conversations as women. For example, we generally pretend in the workplace even if we're having a bad period for example that we're absolutely fine. We play at being superhuman all the time. And I think if more of us can have these honest conversations then there's less chance of us being discriminated against. If more conversations are happening. If it's just one here or there then it is easier to ignore us…you know and it's almost like we have to have those brave conversations individually and those brave conversations are not for everyone to have. I wouldn't say that should be everyone’s cup of tea, but we can't change your culture by just pretending it's not happening to us.”

AM-T: “I also think there are some people listening to this who will remain a bit squeamish about discussing their personal circumstances publicly also, I did a show about 3 years ago focused on our bodies at work, it around menstruation, menopause came into it but not deeply, endometriosis, and I know some people found that a tough show ‘cause they’re kind of like, ergh, I don’t talk about that stuff, it’s private, that is something that I have no wish to discuss with the wider world.”

“I mean I absolutely agree. I was actually talking to a colleague of mine who I was telling her that I was doing this show and she was like, Oh, I'm not sure. That seems like a very public thing to talk about. You know, she's currently having IVF to have children and she said you know I wouldn't want to go around you know telling people I'm doing IVF. And absolutely. That's her decision to make. But the reality is that very few people are going to have IVF but absolutely every single woman is going to go through perimenopause.”

Rebekah Bostan. Thanks to her and Julie Dennis for being my guests on this show.

You will find show notes and links under this episode at TheBroadExperience.com. I don’t know about you but I feel like menopause is ripe for some disruption – it’s great that it’s being discussed so openly in the UK, but what about other countries?

I realize not everyone wants to talk about this but I do agree with my guests – women are not men, we’re a big part of the workforce, and organizations need to understand that we undergo different things when we are at work because our bodies do different things – so why not support us through this change?

Before we go, I want to let you know about a show I bet some of you have already discovered – it’s focused on a new generation working mothers and it’s called The Double Shift. It’s not about parenting or kids really.

Past episodes include an intimate audio documentary about what it’s really like to run for office with little kids, an reported episode on sex worker moms, and what it’s like to be a working mom when your office is a legal brothel and a profile of an amazing woman who runs an overnight daycare in Las Vegas. What these women have in common is that they’re not willing to accept the status quo for working moms in America. The show is hosted by Katherine Goldstein – check out The Double Shift wherever you get your podcasts.

 I always love to hear from you – you can email me at ashley at thebroadexperience.com, tweet me or post on the Facebook page.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte, thanks for listening.