Could you tell us about your experience of menopause, and how it affected you at work?
I have already had 2 menopauses as a result of medical treatment for endometriosis: one in my 20s and a second in my late 30s. And now that I’m in my 40s I am en route to a 3rd natural menopause.
In my 20s I was diagnosed with endometriosis and, after exhausting all other treatments, my doctors put me onto a drug called Zoladex. This is a hormone therapy, and when used for endometriosis (it’s also used to treat prostate cancer in men) it works by essentially stopping your body from producing oestrogen, therefore putting your body into what’s called a medical menopause. As a result, I experienced the vast majority of the 40 or so known symptoms of the menopause!
During my first menopause I didn’t talk to anyone at work about it. I was not anywhere near the age group where anyone would expect that this was what I was going through, and it wasn’t something that was talked about so it was a lonely experience.
By the second time I went through menopause I was doing my current teaching job, here at Oxford. Anxiety and hot flushes are really problematic when you have a role where you can’t easily adjust your work plans at short notice, and where you are really visible all the time. When teaching I am often at the front of a room standing by a screen which pumps out quite a lot of heat so that can be really uncomfortable. It’s difficult for people who haven’t experienced them to understand what a hot flush is like and that it isn’t just being hot. Normal heat is something that usually affects your body from the outside in – so you can move away from the source of the heat. With a hot flush it’s like it comes from the middle of your body, so it’s much harder to deal with and much more uncomfortable.
Did you change anything about your way of working, as a result of, or to help with, your symptoms?
By my second menopause I was more prepared to deal with the symptoms. This coincided with the pandemic and the move to remote working which actually made things so much easier for me. For example, if I was having bad hot flushes I found I could set myself up to teach from my kitchen which has a tiled floor that stays really cold, so I could stand on the floor in bare feet or change into lighter clothing or keep ice close to hand to help manage hot flushes. So being able to teach virtually was a real godsend for me.
I have also got more skilled over the years at finding tactics to make things easier for myself. For example, if my brain fog means that I know the answer to a question but just can’t grasp the right word in that moment, I will say ‘excellent question – we’ll come back to that later on’. And where I used to teach without notes, I now know that I sometimes need to work in a different way. So, I have drafted speaking notes, prompts, or lists to make sure that I don’t put myself in the position where I might lose my thread. I have also found it really helpful to work with a colleague, or colleagues, who I can talk to in advance and explain what I find helpful and supportive. For example, I’ve talked to the two male colleagues I teach with most regularly so they know that if I dry up because I’ve temporarily lost a word I need, I will welcome them stepping in to fill in the gap for me. That makes it a supportive and stress-reducing thing, rather than a stressful situation where they might worry that I would find it intrusive if they jump in. We also have a back channel in the meeting where I can ask them confidentially for help, or they can offer it.
In addition to causing the full range of symptoms of menopause, Zoladex also drains calcium from your bones, so I took up a variety of exercise paths to help improve my bone density. I was fortunate to have some gym equipment at home and found weightlifting really beneficial, for both my physical and mental health.
Looking back, what would you have changed, if anything?
The first time I went through menopause I wish I had known more, and that there had been more information. Even just about things like tactics for managing hot flushes, such as wearing natural fibres and layers. It would have been good to be more prepared, and to have a network of other women to talk to and share experiences. Also, I would definitely have talked to my colleagues and managers about this much earlier on! Having supportive colleagues who might then know what to say or not to say would have been great. For example, because of my age colleagues would sometimes ask me if my symptoms were because I was pregnant - which was upsetting.
The second time I told everyone! Even though a lot of my work as a teacher is done alone, knowing that my colleagues know what’s going on and can offer the right support is much better.
After my second menopause I had a hysterectomy and found a support group on Facebook and that was really good – being able to talk to people going through the same thing is really powerful so I would definitely look out for menopause support networks and groups.
What advice would you give others, both those going through the menopause and their colleagues, managers? How would greater awareness in the workplace have helped you?
To those going through it I would say tell people, but in a way that works for you. I found that I got, and still get, very emotional when talking about it, and that talking face to face can be harder than maybe writing an email. Also, if you want to talk to someone about it, letting them know in advance what you want to talk about can be easier than having to find the words to broach the subject face to face. It also gives them a chance to prepare for the discussion themselves. I would say, try to be open to offers of support – such as discussions about how you would prefer to be supported on a bad day – as this will make things easier for everyone, not least yourself.
To colleagues and managers, I would say that, as well as being informed about who might be affected and supportive, it’s great for colleagues and managers to try to be a bit proactive. People are often really supportive but they frequently ask ‘what can we do?’. For someone going through menopause, it can be difficult to be expected to come up with the solutions. With symptoms like brain fog, anxiety, loss of confidence, it can be difficult to really work out what you need, so it can be helpful for managers or colleagues to really listen to what your symptoms are and how they are affecting you and suggest solutions too. For example:
- ‘Would it help if we got you a fan or put some ice packs in the fridge?’
- ‘Would it help if you worked remotely when your symptoms are bad?’
- ‘If you want to leave your camera turned off in meetings if you are having a bad day, that would be OK’
And, to perhaps suggest things in a way that doesn’t target individuals. For example, making sure that there are breaks in longer meetings might be important for many people for lots of different reasons.