With health metrics telling us that 6,000 women enter menopause every day, you can be sure some of your colleagues are experiencing this momentous rite of passage. And they are doing so silently.
Menopause gets short shrift in terms of stages in a woman’s life. There are certainly pregnant women among us at work and we all love a new baby but menopause is the red-headed stepchild of women's issues. It simply isn't talked about much even amongst the women living through it. So, what causes the lack of sisterhood and how can we survive menopause's sometimes-tumultuous passage while holding down a full-time job and having lots of family responsibilities to boot?
First let's understand it. Did you get a hot flush in the middle of your work day or break out in a night sweat last night? Are you noticing hair loss when you hop out of the shower? Are you experiencing unexpected weight gain or vaginal dryness or some kind of mood swing? Did you feel a heart palpitation? Have your periods stopped or does it seem like you're having a hormone imbalance? Is anxiety consuming you and affecting your performance at work? Are you having urinary incontinence? Each of these could be a sign and symptom of something else entirely — as in, you might be going through menopause. Menopause affects all women differently. In short, the ovaries no longer make estrogen and progesterone, which are two hormones necessary for fertility. And so your body must adapt during your menopausal transition.
All women go through a menopausal transition, though at different points in their lives when their menstrual period stops and each hormone starts to change. The most significant factor for the average age of menopause is genetics — the average age of menopause is usually when your mother experienced natural menopause. Typically, menopause begins at the culmination of a woman’s menstrual cycle, about a year after the last period in the menstrual cycle. Natural menopause happens with age — usually around 51 years old — but, for some women, it can naturally occur before the age of 40, which would be considered premature menopause. This could be the result of an inherited issue or a one-time genetic mutation. A 2011 review of studies found that in up to 20 percent of cases of early menopause, the woman has a family history of the condition. Likewise, you may have an FMR1 gene, which causes Fragile X Syndrome, the most common form of inherited intellectual impairment. Even without the actual syndrome, you could have a mutation on that same gene that affects your ovaries and leads to fragile X-associated primary ovarian insufficiency. According to a report by the National Institutes of Health, one in 33 women deal with this. Turner Syndrome, in which a woman has only one X chromosome, is yet another associated genetic disorder. Meanwhile, autoimmune disorders and toxins (smokers) that can attack the follicles in your ovaries can also lead to early menopause.
Regardless of why you went into early menopause, you’re not alone if it happens to you — one in 100 women will experience menopausal symptoms by the age of 40. And, beyond premature menopause, it can sometimes be brought on even earlier as a result of surgery or treatment of a disease or an illness, that’s recognized as induced or surgical menopause, or premature ovarian failure, according to WebMD.
But how do you cope with it at work, regardless of when it hits?
Call Me By Your Name
To even admit that you are having a hot flash in an office environment is difficult, especially if you have younger colleagues. But naming our situation is honest provided no one plants a stigma on you. Be careful who you share with but, if your experiencing menopause symptoms that are impacting your work, let your boss know you’re dealing with some temporary issues. Let's transcend the humor of menopause and try to be more open about what we are going through. It might make us reach across party lines in terms of age and stage of life. If a younger woman can admit to having menstrual cramps, let's admit to having hot flashes. It might just help bridge the gap and make working a little bit easier.
One of the most debilitating symptoms of menopause and the one most poked fun at, are hot flashes. They can occur anytime and for any reason. That sudden rush of heat can be very intense too. Keeping a small desktop fan that you can switch on and off quickly can really help cool you down and help with the red face that hot flashes generate. Also, a package of baby wipes. Yes, baby wipes! They’re cooling and moist and pressing one discreetly against the back of your neck has the power to turn down the heat. And try to determine what sets your flashes off. Sometimes it’s something as simple as needing to use the restroom quickly or eating something spicy. Keep track of what makes you burn and eliminate those things as much as possible from your daily round.
Short memory lapses are part and parcel of Menopause. You struggle to name that celebrity in a conversation and then five minutes later, her name is cycling through your brain like rain. It’s all part of the ups and downs of hormones. Those types of slips can’t be helped but for everyday facts and figures, keep a pad of paper and pen on your desk and jot down things you’re apt to forget throughout the day. Make lists at home too and learn to love Post-It Notes, those sticky little notepads that can be affixed to anything. Keep one on the inside of your front door with the items you tend to forget as your heading out the door (i.e., glasses, cell phone, laptop).
Every woman knows how important sleep is but night sweats, those horrible soak-through-your-nightie powerful energy rushes can keep you up at night. Find sleepwear designed for cooling. Visit a lingerie store and ask for help locating the fabrics that wick away moisture. Cotton is a winner but so are other textiles in combination. Internet searches for cooling nightclothes will net a number of companies that are producing these types of garments. The same with bedding and anything that touches your skin. Sleeping well at night will also help with the memory issues and keep you on your toes in the office.
Mood swings are no fun. Some women describe them as a feeling of being out of control and the last place you want to lose it is at work. Know what triggers your swings - and prepare. If you know you are going into what could be a contentious meeting, slow down and breathe. Try to stay centered and/or mindful. The practice of meditation can keep your emotions in check too. Remember the picture and don’t let small things bother you. Keep organized to thwart potential frustrations by keeping your car and your tote bag cleaned out. Bring talismans from children and grandchildren with you and reach into your bag and connect with your touchstone to remind you to go easy.
Gaining a few pounds through the middle during menopause makes chic office dressing a little more difficult. Having tight pants pinching at your waist during a meeting is particularly excruciating. Before you run out and buy the dreaded elastic waist pants you vowed you would never wear, try the rubber band trick. By threading a simple ordinary elastic through the buttonhole at the waist and then wrapping the other end around the button, you can release some of the pressure and breath again. And if your feet are swollen and puffy from water retention, remember there are plenty of attractive ballet flats to ease discomfort. Even younger women are opting for cute flats with their office attire. Don’t suffer.
Menopause’s fog brain is another gift of this transition. You know you have it when you get overwhelmed by issues or when you can’t seem to turn your brain off. Thoughts flood in just when you’re trying to concentrate. Instead of writing a checklist for your new hire, you find yourself obsessing about your lawn care bill. One thought leads to another and soon you don’t know which way to turn or which task to tackle next. You might not be able to capture laser focus but you can keep things straight in your head by prioritizing. And if you’re trying to make a decision, check in with a good old-fashioned pros and cons list. Writing algorithms can help when you need to dig into a task at work but thoughts keep you threatening to detour you.
If menopause symptoms are truly severe and your job is on the line or you have received a negative performance review, check in with your doctor. There may be some estrogen-based products that may help.