The menopause is a not an illness or medical condition. Let’s talk about it.
Interim Head of Health, Safety, Environment, and Quality: Professional Services and Technology at ISS Facility Services UK
The menopause is a topic that people find difficult to talk about, a bit like mental health in previous years which is now more openly discussed and better understood. But why is it such a taboo subject?
As children we were taught about how our bodies change – menstrual periods, puberty and hormones – but not what happens as those hormones start to fluctuate and reduce. The word ‘menopause’ literally means when your periods stop and occurs when your ovaries no longer produce eggs and, as a result, the levels of hormones fluctuate and fall. The key hormones are oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone and are responsible for protecting a number of different systems in your body: your brain, skin, bones, heart, urinary functions and the genital area – low levels of these hormones specifically can affect all these parts of your body.
Symptoms not only affect work life but also home life and relationships too
The menopause is a not an illness or medical condition: it is a completely normal life event for women. However, the troublesome symptoms that the menopause can bring are frequently under-recognised, undervalued and not taken seriously. Symptoms such as brain fog, hot flushes, mood changes and fatigue not only affect work life but also home life and relationships too.
From my personal experience I am married to a wonderful woman called Fi, and she has been struggling with perimenopausal symptoms for around 4 years. The term perimenopause is often used to describe the time before the menopause when you experience menopausal symptoms but are still having periods.
At work, Fi’s role is very data heavy, she pours over spreadsheets of data on multiple screens for hours and has concentration to get into the real detail I could only dream of. An absolute professional who strives for perfection in every aspect of life to the point I sometimes wonder why she married me, as I’m definitely more of a ‘big picture’ kind of person! The best analogy I could use to describe us as a couple is that if painting a room I take charge of the paint roller and Fi will be in charge of the paint brush cutting in the edges with precision.
As the years have gone by Fi has struggled withand a lack of confidence but also found on tasks difficult, feeling she wasn’t being productive at work, low mood, and waking up well before the alarm clock and not being able to go back to sleep. Study shows that 9 in 10 women did not recognise that their symptoms were associated to the menopause, and they instead attributed what they were feeling to ageing, stress, anxiety and depression.
I’m always described by Fi as her ‘sunshine’ – I’m so overly positive that there’s not much that can get me down and that light always helped lift her mood. Over time though my ‘powers’ seemed to fail me and it was harder and harder to make her smile. After tracking these symptoms for months, if not years, there was no conclusion on what was causing this daily struggle.
There are 52 recognised symptoms of the menopause and the severity of symptoms varies tremendously between women. Some will only experience them for a few months, others can continue to suffer for years or even decades. Physical symptoms like hot flushes, a change in menstrual periods, joint pains and headaches can have an impact on a woman’s ability to function at work and lead to time off. Psychological symptoms like low mood, fatigue and poor concentration can also take their toll, affecting productivity and how mentally engaged they feel at work and at home.
Others will be experiencing the same situation and remaining silent
I decided that if Fi was struggling this much with her symptoms, and I was struggling with providing her support then others will be experiencing the same situation and remaining silent. My role at work is in Health and Safety, I was concerned that we had employees that were maybe driving long distances after adue to night sweats, insomnia or disturbed sleep patterns. People could be struggling to remember the details of work procedures and policy’s due to brain fogs, lack of concentration, even remembering peoples names in meetings. Fi would regularly refer to me as ‘Kate’ in conversation with friends however my name is ‘Kat’ and always has been.
I decided to raise this with the H&S Senior Leadership Team and raise some awareness on the topic. The team is a mixed group but with more men than women and this made for an interesting conversation with people looking pretty uncomfortable on the call and struggling to even say the word ‘menopause’. Well, that has all changed and is getting better each day. More people are talking about the topic, sharing their stories and learning from each other. I travel around to different client sites to meet our employees and when I mention the menopause awareness work being undertaken it is like a magic key that unlocks people, I think by just saying the ‘M word’ people find it’s a safe space to open up and share their struggles too.
If I had any advice for those either experiencing these changes, supporting a loved one or line managing a menopausal person I would say – educate yourself. There is so much information out there and it is easily accessible. Louise Newson is a brilliant starting point with a library of podcasts that discuss all kinds of aspects of the menopause and also has a tracking app called Balance which allows you to track your symptoms and the severity on a daily basis. The app can produce a report for you that you can then take to the GP with you and allow discussions to be had on hormone replacement therapy (HRT) to assist with managing and eliminating these symptoms. Fi has been on oestrogen for a number of months now she describes it as the colour starting to come back into life again. Don’t be afraid to have a conversation, don’t be embarrassed by the word menopause, ask for help and support and get the colour back in your life too.