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

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 "And unfortunately, some managers may be stuck with images that are 20 years out of date, when in truth, we want to work, we’re energetic.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.

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