Laura Berlinsky-Schine

Now that most women continue to work well past the onset of menopause, you may be wondering how you can expect it to impact your work. What will change? Will people notice? Will you face discrimination?

Menopause is a normal, natural transition for women. It’s not an illness and shouldn’t be a source of embarrassment or shame. Unfortunately, some work environments aren’t receptive to the very normal changes that every woman undergoes. Furthermore, some menopausal symptoms can be so debilitating to some individuals that they may elect to stop working. Every woman is different, so it’s hard to predict when the onset of menopause will occur in each individual and how the symptoms of menopause will affect her. Read on for some common predictors of what you can expect, when you can expect it, and how it might impact your work life.

Predicting when menopause will hit

The average age of natural menopause is 51. However, menopause age depends on several factors, genetics being the most important. The average age of menopause doesn't matter nearly as much as how old your mother was when she began; you can expect to fall within a few years of the menopausal age of your mother and other female family members.

Still, while certainly not the majority, some women go through early menopause or premature menopause well before the average age, even as young as 40. If your mother reached menopause before the age of 45, and other women in your family experienced it later, you won’t necessarily follow suit.

A small percentate of women may have premature ovarian failure and experience menopause-like symptoms. This condition occurs before the age of the 40 and results in infertility issues, as well as irregular periods. 

Menopause age also depends on other factors, including your ethnic background—some ethnicities tend to go through menopause earlier or later than others—and whether or not you smoke; if you do, your age of menopause may be earlier than it might have been otherwise. 

Medical procedures can also affect the age of menopause. Chemotherapy often puts younger women into temporary menopause, and may result in earlier menopause later on.

Surgical menopause generally refers to the early menopause that occurs in women who have their ovaries removed in a procedure called bilateral oophorectomy. Doctors may perform this minimally invasive procedure if a woman suffers from endometritis, ovarian cancer, non-cancerous ovarian tumors or cysts, or an ovary torsion, a painful condition in which the ovary becomes twisted around the tissue that support it. Women may also elect to have prophylactic oophorectomy to reduce their risk of developing ovarian or breast cancer.

Because the ovaries produce hormones that control a woman’s menstrual cycle, including estrogen and progesterone, women who have undergone a bilateral oophorectomy will begin premature menopause (surgical menopause), assuming they have not already begun natural menopause. 

Keep in mind that the age at which your menstrual cycle began, pregnancy, and taking birth control pills do not affect menopausal age. Despite menstrual periods beginning at an earlier age on average in recent years, the average age of menopause has remained consistent for some time. 

How menopause could affect work

Menopause affects women's health differently. Some women have minimal side effects and symptoms and appreciate that their menstrual period days are over. Others may have negative responses to their fluctuating hormone levels and experience a slew of vasomotor symptoms, including hot flashes, irregular periods, vaginal dryness, night sweats, and difficulty sleeping. Bone loss, which has to do with declining estrogen and progesterone levels, can also occur during the menopausal transition. Weight gain, though not the direct cause of hormonal changes, can be associated with menopause as well (weight gain is thought to be more related to aging, lifestyle, and genetic factors). Menopausal women may also experience psychological symptoms, including depression, anxiety, and mood swings. Some women may encounter memory problems, periods of clumsiness and forgetfulness, and other cognitive symptoms.

If you experience some or all of these symptoms, it can be hard to avoid having menopause impact your work. There are some steps you can take—and your employer can take—to mitigate these side effects and reduce the extent to which menopausal symptoms impact your work and working environment. 

Keeping menopause from taking over your working life

Steps you can take

Take breaks.

You may need to take breaks during the day or leave work early on occasion. That’s nothing to be ashamed of. If you need a break, take it. You shouldn’t have to suffer through stress or physical symptoms.

Take care of your mental and physical health.

There are many symptoms associated with menopause, and addressing them shouldn’t embarrass you. If you’re experiencing depression, anxiety, mood swings, or other psychological side effects, you may want to see a psychologist or another mental health professional to discuss them. If your physical symptom are causing you pain, see your gynecologist; there’s no reason why you need to suffer.

Begin hormone replacement therapy. 

Some women elect to regulate their hormone levels artificially or with natural supplements to reduce symptoms associated with menopause, including bone loss, hot flashes, night sweats, and vaginal dryness. Hormone replacement therapy may also help protect women against osteoporosis. However, hormone therapy can adversely affect other aspects of women's health; it may increase your risk of breast cancer, heart disease, or stroke. It’s important to read all the potential side effects, compare different hormone therapy options, and weigh the risks against the potential benefits.

Discuss the situation with your employer.

You may feel embarrassed to talk about your menopause symptoms with your manager, but if you don’t, you may not receive the accommodations you need. If you’re uncomfortable discussing it with a male boss, you might ask a female colleague or HR representative to be present for the meeting. Articulate what kinds of reasonable accommodations you might need, and explain the ways in which menopause might impact your work.

Steps employers can take

Be flexible.

If your employee discusses her menopause symptoms with you and asks for accommodations, such as the ability to work from home some days, be as open as possible. Communicate understanding, and make allowances, as long as they don’t interfere with the quality of your employee’s work.

Educate management and employees.

 Menopause remains a taboo subject in many workplaces. Employers can work to change the culture and stigma surrounding a normal event that happens to all women in their lives. Some ways to educate your employees may include holding awareness events, handing out literature on the subject, and making policies that touch on the menopausal transition, such as sick days and vacation, clear.

Be aware of legalities concern symptoms of menopause.

While there are no specific laws governing the treatment of menopausal women, actions that arise as a result of menopausal symptoms could be related to ageism or sexism. Recognize what behaviors might be the result of menopause, as opposed to poor performance. Of course, if there are performance issues that are unrelated to menopause or other biases, that’s a separate issue. Simply being cognizant of challenges associated with this transition can help you gauge what might be the result of menopause and what’s not. 

Menopause can be a difficult stage of life for many women. While you may be experiencing a number of physical and psychological symptoms, there are many steps you and your employer can take to reduce the extent to which it impacts your work—and make the transition smoother and easier. It’s also important to recognize when you need help and to seek it out. Be kind to yourself and recognize that’s it’s sometimes okay to lean on others.