Working Through Menopause

How women deal with menopause symptoms at work. Hot flashes, brain fog, sleepless nights: How do we manage our careers when our bodies are on a roller-coaster ride?

By Mary Lou Quinlan
Mary Lou Quinlan
Photograph: Photo courtesy of Mary Lou Quinlan

Career Effects of Menopause

When I set out to write about the career effects of menopause, I figured I’d be deluged with women ready to share their stories in the safe pages of a magazine for women over 40. Wrong. Readers clammed up, unwilling to attach their names to the M-word. Perhaps some didn’t think menopause was a big enough challenge to discuss. Others seemed to find the subject too personal for prime time. As one friend told me, "I’d rather talk about being fired on national television than admit to having hot flashes."

Menopause is the condition that dares not speak its name, at least from nine to five — but we’ve all seen professional women whip off a jacket to cope with a hot flash or call a memory lapse a senior moment. I’ve always thought that midlifers should resist the inclination to talk about menopause on the job. What happens in the night-sweaty bedroom, stays in the night-sweaty bedroom, right?

Still, it can be helpful to know how other women deal with symptoms. By using our hard-won management skills, we may be able to transform this transition into a new lease on our work lives.

Grinning and Bearing It

How many menopausal women actually suffer significant symptoms? About 25 percent, according to some studies, though there’s not a lot of objective data on this. Still, if you mention menopause to most midlifers, you start the laugh track. Perhaps because the symptoms can hit us in our prime-time egos, we resort to humor as a form of hormone therapy.

One executive I spoke with remembers making an important presentation at an advertising agency in Boston. "As I began to speak, I felt a hot flash coming on," she says. "I was wearing a leather jacket, which made it worse, but there was no graceful way to take it off, so I decided to just power through. My mouth went on autopilot. I thought the presentation went well, but afterward a colleague told me I had referred to the company whose business we wanted by the name of a competitor — three times! Needless to say, we didn’t get the account. After that, I made sure not to wear leather, and to take a swig of cold water and a couple of deep breaths before every presentation," she adds. "Stress definitely brings on the hot flashes, but it’s predictable enough that I haven’t had quite that reaction again…at least I don’t think so!"

Diane DeVaughn Stokes, 55, host of a cable television talk show in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, had to struggle to keep herself camera ready and coherent through 11 years of menopause symptoms. After nights when the little sleep she got was interrupted by sheet-drenching hot flashes, she would drag herself to the studio and try to apply stage makeup over slick skin as she braced for the hot lights of her job. "I faced the cameras with a smile and tissues stashed between my chair cushions so I could wipe the sweat off my face between shots," Stokes says. "I’d sneak a quick swipe before the viewers could see what I was doing. It was embarrassing. It was insane." It was all in a menopausal day’s work.

When to Shut Up

Tara Parker-Pope, author of The Hormone Decision, observes that some women invite an audience when they continually adjust the office thermostat, fan themselves wildly, and dramatically tear off their jackets. "Hot flashes are nothing to be ashamed of," she says, "but women should be conscious about drawing attention to a symptom that could be perceived as part of the aging process." As for "menobrain" — the foggy thinking that may or may not be an actual menopause symptom — studies show that women think it’s more apparent to others than it really is. "You are tired and deserve to be," Parker-Pope says. "Over time, everyone develops some cognitive change, whether it’s because of estrogen fluctuations or just aging. You feel like you’re not firing as quickly, but only you really know. Talking too much about it can affect others’ perceptions of your performance."

Suzanne McCabe, 51, a human resources professional in Westport, Connecticut, is tuned in to the menopause issue from both legal and management perspectives. She notes that there are no government regulations protecting employees from being discriminated against because of menopause symptoms. "If you are in a fast-paced, heavy-workload company, expect your boss to be less patient when you lose productivity," she says. "Women managers who have been pregnant or have had symptoms themselves might be more understanding, but they also need to get the work done. And if you’re new on the job, realize that if you talk about your symptoms, you may be revealing more about yourself than you really want others to know. "

When McCabe’s own menopause symptoms became an issue for her at age 47, she was reluctant to open up to colleagues; as an HR professional, she had to set an example of discretion. But she eventually found an ally she could trust: her exercise buddy and peer, a woman who was vice president of finance. "I probably would have found it inappropriate to talk to anyone junior to me," McCabe says. "But the VP and I were the same age, at the same level and in the same situation, and our conversations, side by side on treadmills at the gym, really saved me."

Listening to Our Bodies

When journalists Barbara Kantrowitz, 57, and Pat Wingert, 52, got a contract for their book Is It Hot in Here? Or Is It Me? The Complete Guide to Menopause, they kept mum about the topic, fearing it would tip off younger colleagues to their ages. "Today’s midlifers are smarter and look younger than those of generations before," Kantrowitz says, "but in today’s youth-obsessed workplace, we need to be cautious.

"This is the first generation to have so many women working through menopause," Kantrowitz adds. "And unfortunately, some managers may be stuck with images that are 20 years out of date, when in truth, we want to work, we’re energetic. We can’t let others define who we are at this age. We need to define it ourselves."

Like the other experts I spoke with, Kantrowitz and Wingert advise monitoring your symptoms and observing what seems to trigger them — foods, caffeine, stress. Wingert notes that basic good health maintenance, like exercising and eating well, not only keeps extra pounds at bay but also delivers energy and attitude that can juice anyone’s career. "Your body may giving you a nudge to take care of it," Wingert says. "If all else fails, maybe menopause is trying to give you a signal that it’s time to reassess and move on."

For example, when symptoms of early menopause started to affect Sherrie Graham’s work as a management consultant, she took control, stepping up her practice of yoga, tai chi, and meditation to manage her mood swings. When a hot flash hit, she would take a short walk or a five-minute meditation break. Since most of her time was spent meeting with clients or traveling to workshops, it took an extra measure of perseverance to apply her techniques. But, she says, "The mind-body integration really worked."

Because she owns a business, Graham, now 55 and living in Mobile, Alabama, was able to restructure her workload when her symptoms got out of hand. "I reduced my client load by 25 percent," she says. "And I chose long-term projects that gave me more flexibility. I also found that increasing my volunteer work and getting more involved in community and church activities helped me focus on others instead of my health issues. If a project took a wrong turn, I was able to stop for a moment, have faith, and regroup. I learned to listen to my body and realize that this is a part of life."

Making Change out of The Change

Sometimes the physical upheavals of menopause shake us loose from jobs we’re ready to let go of. Nancy Intermill, a sociologist and gerontologist in Lincoln, Nebraska, worked in state government as a mental-health planner. Strategic planning suited her talents well. But when she was 47, a massive reorganization shifted her duties to data analysis, a much less creative job. She spent her days deskbound, crunching numbers and working alone. Depression and menopause set in at the same time.

"My emotions were on a roller coaster. I was absolutely in a brain fog, which I didn’t recognize till afterward was related to menopause," says Intermill, now 55. "I just thought I was not capable of doing the job, especially since numbers are not my forte. The more I felt that, the less I was able to do it." Intermill stayed in the job, miserably, for about a year until she was able to swing a move back into strategic planning. But eventually she realized she wanted to leave state government and be her own boss. Now Intermill is an independent distributor for a national beverage company and teaches sociology at a local university. "I needed to move on," she says, "and menopause got me going."

For Diane Ormerod, 52, of Crestwood, Kentucky, menopause itself pointed the way to a new career. She suffered severe premenopausal symptoms — heavy menstrual bleeding and sleeplessness — for two years while managing the labor relations department at a large government hospital. Finally she agreed to a hysterectomy that put her into full-scale menopause. Back at work after the surgery, she began to wonder, "Was it worth it working these long hours with no consideration from management about how I was? The more I talked with women who were going through this," Ormerod says, "the more I realized that women needed to share — that we could help one another with ideas and information instead of just suffering through it."

Ormerod decided to switch to a government agency job that was less demanding. Then she and her best friend canvassed their circles of friends and found that many midlifers need a place to go to open up and learn, yet are reluctant to join something that would be time consuming or, worse, age labeling. They created Bikinis and Bifocals, a Web site designed to bring women together for networking with peers.

Looking back on how long it took her to face and share her health issues, Ormerod is bittersweet. "I wish I had been more aggressive in my early 40s to learn more about perimenopause and menopause," she says. "I think women are looking for alternative means to improve the quality of their lives. I’ve found my passion, and though I work late into the night on the site, it’s something I do without hesitation or complaining. Now this company — not menopause — is my driving force every day."

Mary Lou Quinlan is CEO of the marketing firm Just Ask A Woman and author of Time Off for Good Behavior: How Hardworking Women Can Take a Break and Change Their Lives.

Originally published in MORE magazine, June 2007.

First Published Mon, 2009-04-06 18:22

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