Working women and menopause

Thea O'Connor

Thea O'Connor

It impacts half of humanity, but like mental health a decade ago, if it comes up in a conversation, it tends to provoke either awkwardness or flippant humour.

And in the workplace, it’s basically a taboo subject.

Bellingen’s Thea O’Connor, a health and productivity coach, would like to change that.

Later this month, she will be piloting an online program that brings women from different workplaces together so they can share their experiences of transitioning through menopause and discover ways to improve their wellbeing.

Thea said her interest in this topic was sparked by a catch-up conversation with an old friend she hadn’t seen for 30 years.

“She opened up very quickly about how challenging it was dealing with menopause at work,” Thea said. “And how she couldn’t imagine speaking up to her manager, who is male, without being discriminated against.”

Thea also had a personal motivation for finding out more about menopause, as she’s 52 and has started noticing the changes it brings.

To develop her online program, she interviewed 24 working women across Australia whose ages ranged from 41–61 and found the words they chose most frequently to describe their menopausal experiences were ‘isolating’ and ‘embarrassing’.

It’s not something that is discussed in a workplace, even though it has the most profound hormonal effect on you

“It’s not something that is discussed in a workplace, even though it has the most profound hormonal effect on you,” one said.

“I felt patronised and embarrassed, being the butt of jokes,” said another. “If you took your cardigan off 100 times a day, or had to adjust the air-conditioning, people went ‘Oh, ho, ho, middle-aged women!’”

One woman said the hardest thing was maintaining a professional facade, pretending nothing unusual was happening.

“Having to carry on regardless, keep doing your work no matter how severe the symptoms were. Mine was haemorrhaging.”

The women also made the point that unlike other milestones, such as the onset of menstruation, pregnancy and childbirth, no one sits you down to tell you what to expect.

“Why didn’t anyone tell me? This is a change of life I was not prepared for at all,” an interviewee said.

Menopause is defined retrospectively as the condition a woman reaches when her last menstrual period was 12 months ago.

The time before that, perimenopause, lasts from four to eight years on average, and it’s when fluctuations in hormone levels can start causing fatigue, hot flushes, sleep disruption, irregular and unpredictable bleeding, urinary issues, anxiety and mood changes. 

These symptoms are usually most frequent and severe in the year around the final menstrual period, according to the Australasian Menopause Society.

Research suggests that 60 per cent of women will have mild symptoms, 20 per cent will have no symptoms at all, and another 20 per cent will be severely affected.

Thea said that in the midst of perimenopause, women often worry these symptoms will last forever.

“But they are temporary, and in the workplace simple, inexpensive adjustments can make the world of difference, especially flexible working conditions,” she said.

Her interviewees also said lifting the silence and the stigma was essential.

“Talk about it and normalise it. It’s a natural part of the life cycle. Imagine if we even celebrated it as a rite of passage into being more of an Elder.”

For more information about the online program, see http://www.thea.com.au/the-change/