Menopause is a physiological inevitability for 100% of women. Studies consistently show that around 80% of women experience negative physical and mental effects, and these are moderate to severe in 30% of women1. These figures were similar to those collected in our own survey, conducted in partnership with SPVS, of the awareness and impact of menopause within the veterinary profession (VW/SPVS Survey). When 83% of respondents say menopause has impacted their working life and career, we need to take notice.
Why we need to talk about the menopause
Once we hit midlife – when many of us are recovering from the fog of childbearing – menopause arrives. At a time when we’ve built confidence, experience and should be reclaiming the space in our lives to focus more on our career, hobbies and social life, the menopause throws a spanner in the works.
For a profession seeking to foster strong leadership, and with an increasing proportion of women, providing support to mitigate the effects of menopause on working life and careers is something we should be actively seeking to develop. The attitude of put up and shut up – it’s a ‘natural’ part of life we just have to deal with – is not helpful. Bearing in mind our prehistoric ancestors didn’t survive beyond 30-40 years, we weren’t actually ‘designed’ to reach menopausal age. Another example where our physiology is maladapted to modern life and our prolonged life expectancy. We’re outliving our evolved ovaries.
Working life and the menopause
The average age menopause is experienced is 50 years and symptoms are experienced for an average of seven years. What this means for us in practical terms is that we’ll be living with symptoms for about 15% of our working life. Also, that we’ll potentially be post-menopause for around half our working life.
A quarter of working women aged over 50 find their menopause symptoms so debilitating they consider giving up their careers. Half of women aged between 50 and 64 in the UK – more than 2 million in total – work extra hours to make up for time lost due to the symptoms2. Hot flushes, memory loss, joint aches and anxiety are some of the side-effects costing the UK economy an estimated 14 million working days every year3.
“Just a fraction of women who experience difficulties during menopause will speak to their employer about their symptoms. This lack of discussion and transparency is having a serious impact on the economy and there is a huge risk that a pool of expertise, talent and skill could be needlessly lost.”
Kate Bache, of Health & Her
Menopause in the spotlight
The profile of menopause is on the rise. There’s a been an ITV documentary, newspaper articles, surveys and studies making mainstream headlines2,3. An episode of the Michelle Obama podcast is dedicated entirely to this subject. Times columnist Caitlin Moran has written one of her acerbic articles on the topic, describing the come-down from our cyclical hormonal highs to coping with life ‘cold turkey’ in the absence of oestrogen rushes (I paraphrase). And BBC Breakfast’s Louise Minchin filmed a feature about her own experiences4.
“[Menopause] is an important thing to take up space in a society, because half of us are going through this, but we’re living like it’s not happening.”
The stories that dominate are those of privileged, white, middle-class women. It’s great to see initiatives such as the Instagram account @menopausewhilstblack, which are beginning to offer diverse perspectives.
Menopause and veterinary life
There are some very specific themes which emerged from our survey. Increased anxiety and loss of confidence. Joint aches making surgery and heavy lifting more challenging. Sleeplessness, dizziness and poor concentration affecting all aspects of life and work. Increased headaches and migraines. The discomfort of hot flushes. Mood swings affecting relationships. And these effects are prolonged and unpredictable.
In our survey, only 28% of peri-/post- menopausal women said it had not impacted their career at all. For one third, the impact was moderate to severe. Many described reducing their hours or breadth of work. Some resigned from practice partnerships.
Menopause and stigmatisation
Of course, 20% of women do not experience symptoms and indeed feel the immediate benefits of liberation from the cyclical hormonal swings, symptoms and inconvenience of menstruation. We must be careful not to foster negative stigmatising of ‘women of a certain age’ as an unintended consequence of raising awareness. Much as women of childbearing age have testified to personal questions about their intentions to start a family – and missed out on jobs and career advancement as a result – we must ensure this does not happen for women of menopausal age.
Menopause and the workplace – what you can do
There are simple, practical and cultural changes that practices can adopt to support menopausal women. It is possible.
- Practical adaptations: Last year Nottinghamshire Police won a Live Better With Spotlight Award for Best Workplace after introducing a menopause police that included easier access to showers, lighter uniforms and flexible working hours for those coping with hot flushes and fatigue. Easy access to toilets and cold water along with offices with good ventilation are also important, as is making sure the firm’s sickness policy covers menopause. These closely match the workplace requests from our veterinary survey respondents.
- Cultural change: Many responses in our survey highlighted lack of support due to poor understanding of younger colleagues, stigmatising and being the subject of ridicule. We know from the BVA Motivation, Satisfaction and Retention Survey that a sense of belonging and day to day experiences are key to motivation in the workplace. It is important that empathy and understanding is fostered, discriminatory language is called out, and support and empathy are displayed. It’s definitely #TimeForChange
- Training: One respondent commented on how non veterinary organisations had introduced ‘Menopause training’ for their management staff. More awareness, more understanding and less judgementalism at senior levels sets the culture and tone for the practice. Business in the Community has developed a workplace ‘Menopause Toolkit’ for their members. What about creating the same for the veterinary professions?
- Education: Quite a few of the survey respondents said they were ‘not sure’ if peri-menopause was the cause of certain symptoms. There are a range of symptoms, many of which are non-specific, so it’s not surprising there’s confusion. But because menopause is not talked about openly, this closes the door to empathy and also means potential solutions aren’t discussed. If we don’t know the symptoms – or think we just have to put up and shut up with ‘getting old’ – we can’t access treatment solutions. Much like owners with arthritic dogs saying ‘it’s just old age’, when we know there are raft of therapies and husbandry changes to improve quality of life for these dogs. Let’s apply these principles to menopausal women! Understanding ourselves also helps our friends and family to understand, especially when the effects put our relationships under strain. Over half our respondents wanted to know more from both a personal and organisational perspective.
Our Facebook live session with women’s health specialist, Dr Karen Morton, highlighted the fact that HRT is often poorly understood even by GPs, and many women are suffering unnecessarily from the debilitating effects of menopause. For example, natural oestrogens can be provided in a variety of topical form to provide tailored treatment for specific symptoms with the added benefits of reduced risk of breast cancer and osteoporosis. I would counsel ALL women – and any man who interacts with women of menopausal age (i.e. everyone) – to watch this. Over half of of VW/SPVS Survey respondents said they’d like to know more about both personal and workplace mechanisms to reduce the impact of menopause.
“It’s about time we really tried to smash through the taboo [of menopause], there really is no need for any of us to suffer in silence.”
Louise Minchin, BBC Breakfast presenter and GB triathlete
The post-menopausal positives
There is light at the end of the tunnel! If we can be supportive through the menopausal years, this is a hugely experienced talent pool we’re retaining within the profession. And many women describe emerging post menopause with more time, fewer commitments and a sense of liberation.
“Menopause can be tough but when you come out the other side you will feel like a new and better version of yourself. You’ll have a new sense of freedom.”
Sarah Connor of the Wellington Times
Surely, supporting women through the difficult period of menopause is absolutely in our best collective interest to retain talent in the profession through the difficult years and out into a bright latter career path. Wouldn’t it be great if more of the power, experience and time of older women were harnessed to drive the veterinary industry forwards?
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