"Overnight, I felt I'd lost all my confidence in my ability to do my job."
Barbara was 46 when she went into surgical menopause. Working in a senior management position, the impact of the sudden changes and the lack of workplace support led her to make the difficult decision to leave a career she relished. Here Barbara shares her story.
I was 44 when I started going through my perimenopause journey. I was experiencing some hot flushes, night sweats and severe fatigue. None of the symptoms were unmanageable though, and I began to think, perhaps naively, that it wasn’t going to be too bad.
Little did I know what was coming. As things progressed, I started to experience awful periods, pain, and heavy bleeding. My cycle was getting shorter and my bleeding more frequent.
I’ve always had issues with my periods and had been diagnosed with endometriosis, but these new symptoms became horrendous. I was referred to a gynaecologist and it was decided I should have a hysterectomy and oophorectomy which involved the removal of my ovaries and fallopian tubes.
‘For me, this is where my real menopause started.’
I went into my surgery in perimenopause and came out in full blown menopause. It was immediate. Like a ‘bang’.
The symptoms all came at once. I had hot flushes, dry skin and shockingly, my hair started to fall out in clumps. But without question, the worst symptom was the impact it had on my mental health and cognitive ability. I started to experience an overwhelming sense of panic and anxiety. A feeling of impending doom sat constantly in my chest.
‘I wanted to go back to work.’
I worked in a senior management position where I led a large team and would spend my days managing my team and talking to people across the organisation. As I started to recover from the physical impact of the hysterectomy, I wanted to go back to work. I knew in my role there would be no ‘easing myself back in’ but I was unprepared for how tricky it really would be.
‘It felt like someone had hoovered out half my brain.’
My memory was shot to pieces. I was taking so many notes in meetings and I couldn’t just think on my feet anymore and it felt at times that I was barely able to contribute.
I felt hot and sweaty all the time. Some meeting rooms had no air conditioning. I didn’t want to speak up in meetings for fear of people noticing how heavily I was sweating and how flushed I look.
I had lots of issues with my weakened pelvic floor following my surgery, and at times, I needed the bathroom every hour, which is difficult when in meetings that last several hours. I became so worried about having an ‘accident’ I became fearful of leaving my house.
Overnight, after nearly twenty years in senior management, I knew this couldn’t go on. I had lost all my confidence.
I was proactive and reached out to HR and my manager for help. They said all the right things, but in practice I didn’t feel there wasn’t enough knowledge or services to really help employees going through the menopause. Apart from a brief presentation at a wellbeing session, I am not sure I ever heard menopause being spoken about at work.
Unlike pregnancy that affects some women in the workplace, menopause is a period of life that affects almost every woman and it didn’t really seem high on the agenda. There were certainly no policies that supported staff through this, and no one in a senior role openly spoke about or championed this important health issue.
‘I made the very difficult decision to leave the job I loved and a career I relished.’
I think there is a real need for education and awareness within organisations to ensure no employee feels as isolated as I did.
If a culture existed in workplaces to ensure women could speak about what they are going through with colleagues and managers, and without fear of being disregarded or being treated like they are underperforming in their role, it would make all the difference.
It would be a game change to enable women to do simple things, such as, being given permission to take off a suit jacket, or part of their uniform, during a hot flush, and for women to be empowered to simply pop out of a meeting to use the bathroom. Things could be so different if we could encourage women to contribute in meetings, without anyone mentioning ‘you look hot or flushed’.
Along with practical support, work culture really needs to change. Businesses need to value the women they have in their workforce who are going through the menopause, otherwise many will continue to leave.
It doesn’t have to cost organisations financially; it’s about taking the time and effort to recognise the impact the menopause has. Giving women the safe space to talk about it and providing all managers with training so they can have open conversations and provide practical support is crucial. That’s how the culture around menopause will change in the workplace.
I now know your career doesn’t have to end as your menopause starts.
Wellbeing for Women is asking employers to join the Menopause Workplace Pledge and support their staff going through the menopause. Find out more about the campaign.