There’s never a good time to have a hot flash, but some of the worst moments surely occur at work—every eye is on you as you start heating up in the middle of an important meeting, a one-on-one with your boss or a client presentation. Other symptoms of menopause can be even more disruptive to getting your job done—sleep difficulties, trouble concentrating, poor memory, anxiety and irritability don’t take a holiday on workdays.
Sobering statistic: Four out of 10 women who experience menopause symptoms believe that those symptoms have a negative effect on their job performance, according to a recent British study. Another three out of 10 women in that study responded that menopause could affect job performance but that they work very hard to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Yet many women are deeply reluctant to bring these issues up with their employers, fearing both ageism and sexism.
My advice: It’s worth it. As a menopause coach, I’ve seen the difference the right workplace attitude and policies can make to help women be both more comfortable and more productive. According to an Australian study published in the journal Menopause, women in the workplace do better at handling the changes of menopause—indeed, actually have fewer symptoms—when they work in places with supportive management and a comfortable environment.
Fortunately, attitudes about menopause and work are starting to change both in Europe where I’m based and elsewhere. The European Menopause and Andropause Society published a position statement in the journal Maturitas that made recommendations to employers. In my opinion, these recommendations make sense equally in the US and everywhere else…
- Managers should receive training about menopause and the issues it presents to employees. The resulting awareness and sensitivity can help employees feel more comfortable talking about it.
- Workers should be given the opportunity to adjust work hours to help them manage sleep difficulties and the resulting productivity-sapping fatigue.
- Work-related stress is a big problem for employees going through menopause. Companies can offer support such as providing information on how to deal with symptoms and offering women opportunities to share information and coping strategies with one another.
- Control over temperature. Temperature is obviously a major issue for women suffering from menopausal hot flashes—and giving workers the ability to control it can be key. The Australian study found that the simple move of giving women control over workplace temperature helped them reduce their symptoms and improve productivity.
HOW TO MAKE YOUR OFFICE BETTER
American companies and human resources managers need to become more enlightened about menopause now. It’ll take more women speaking up. Ready to make it happen? Let’s get down to business…
- Break the silence. Talking about menopause may feel taboo, but do your best to get over any reticence you have about speaking up. Schedule a time to talk with a human resources staffer or your manager about your current situation, the symptoms you’re experiencing and, most important, how it’s affecting your work.
- Frame it not as a personal problem but as a productivity issue that has a potential solution.
- Make doable suggestions, such as lowering the office temperature or relocating your desk to a cooler spot on the floor or near a window that can be opened. If those options aren’t possible, ask for a fan—or permission to bring one from home. You can keep it under your desk to blow on your legs if it’s distracting for others or messing with your paperwork. Access to chilled drinking water is another helpful and reasonable request.
- Does your company offer flexibility? A later start time might help if you’re dealing with sleep problems, as could the opportunity to work from home some of the time.
Be sure to stress the fact that your work not only won’t suffer…it will get better with these accommodations. What if you experience resistance? Above all, remember that you’re not drawing battle lines. It’s not you against them. Everyone should be able to agree that it’s a shared goal for you to be fit and well and able to do your job to the best of your ability.
WHAT YOU CAN DO YOURSELF
You can’t rely entirely on management to make your experience at work better as you navigate menopause. Here are some tips you can use right now to make your office experience more menopause-friendly…
- Watch what you eat and drink. Coffee and work go together like bread and butter, but caffeine may make hot flashes worse. It may help to wean yourself off of caffeine—I often suggest that women try herbal tea. Spicy food can be another trigger, as can hot food—so swap hot burritos or steaming soup for cold salads and sandwiches. (Not sure what your triggers are? Keep a menopause diary!) Conversely, drinking plenty of water is the perfect antidote—dehydration can exacerbate hot flashes, which makes you sweat, and increases dehydration. Break the cycle by staying hydrated all day.
- Keep nutritious snacks (nuts, plain yogurt, hard-boiled eggs, hummus and veggies) on hand to avoid dips in blood sugar, which can sap your energy and make you irritable.
- Dress smart. Think layers, such as a short-sleeved or sleeveless shirt with a light sweater or jacket that you can nonchalantly remove and put back on as needed. It also helps to avoid wool, silk and most synthetic fabrics because they trap heat, boosting body temperature. Choose clothing made of cotton and linen, which release heat and keep you cooler. If you’ve got long hair, always carry hair ties or clips so you can put it up off your neck.
- Try not to bring work home. You need to be especially vigilant about getting enough rest, so in addition to practicing good sleep hygiene—go to bed and wake up as close to the same time as possible most days, avoid caffeine and alcohol in the evening—do your best not to let work interfere with your evenings. Don’t linger at the office in the evening—leave on time as often as possible—and try to avoid working at home in the evening.
- Let yourself relax before bedtime. If you absolutely must work at home at night, make sure you put it all away and stop communicating with colleagues at least two hours before you want to fall asleep so you can wind down. Power off all electronic devices—phones, tablets, laptops—ideally two hours before bedtime and definitely once you’re in your bedroom. The blue light they emit is the most disruptive form of light for sleeping because it suppresses the production of melatonin, the hormone that helps control the body’s sleep-wake cycle. Plus, you won’t be tempted to respond to e-mails or texts from the office.
- Minimize on-the-job stress. Give yourself plenty of time to get to meetings so you’re not rushing around. Aim to finish projects comfortably in advance of deadlines, and prepare well for presentations to avoid feeling flustered and stressed.
- Embrace calm-down strategies such as deep breathing if you start to get irritated with a colleague or feel a hot flash coming on at an inopportune moment. Slowly inhale, hold it while you count to five or six, then slowly exhale. Repeat this four or five times.
Menopause can be a challenging time for many women. But it’s much easier to get through it in style if your workplace is on your side. Finally, remember that 100% of women who live into middle age go through menopause. You are not alone. So let’s get the menopause conversation started!