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."

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