With mental health issues now under a huge spotlight thanks to the Covid pandemic, and millions of women exerting a powerful influence in the workplace, we can now at last have a constructive conversation about the elephant in the room: the menopause.
More than at any other time in life, women around 45-49 years are more likely to have clinical depression, commit suicide, end a long-term relationship or leave their job. And the higher women climb, the greater the impact of unpredictable hormones and unwelcome physical, emotional and cognitive changes, along with the usual ups and downs of life. One minute they can be sailing through life, patting themselves on the back for holding down a high-powered job, running a household and maintaining relationships with family and friends. The next they’re drowning in stress and perspiration, questioning their competence and losing confidence.
This is not the same as the work-related burnout suffered by time-poor professionals running on adrenaline. This is perimenopause – years of hormonal creep that women face as they approach menopause. It’s estimated that 25 per cent of women are in perimenopause by the time they’re 40. Surgery, medical treatment, lifestyle factors and genetics can make its onset even earlier.
Midlife burnout, triggered by hormonal imbalance, is something employers are seeing more of in recent years. This is because perimenopause is one transition that arrives alongside other transitions.
Societal trends mean that perimenopause – a stage that used to be biologically aligned with a period in a woman’s life where she had more space to reinvent purpose and more free time – is out of sync with the challenges of modern life. Alongside the physical transition of menopause, women may also be faced with other transitions, such as the pandemic and personal pressures, whether they be professional or psychological.
A positive, well-communicated strategy for supporting women going through this inevitable stage in their lives is not just vital for individual performance and mental health, but imperative for any employer committed to gender equality and developing and retaining coveted professional skills. Gaps in understanding lead to unconscious bias, stereotyping and misinformation. But with the right support and internal processes in place, this can be a positive time for women.
The perimenopause varies greatly from one woman to the next. It usually starts in the mid-40s and lasts around seven years. While it’s an inevitable fact of life, when women push themselves too hard, it can make matters worse.
Employers that understand how to read the signs are better able to intervene early and steer women towards the right kind of support. This helps alleviate the impact on individuals and the business as a whole. HR departments have got a lot better at recognising work-related burnout, but female burnout is less well understood.
Around 13 million women are currently either in or past their menopause – the fastest growing group of workers in the UK. Usually unfazed by the demands of a busy work and home life, along comes poor sleep, brain fog, anxiety, hot flushes, low mood and more. These women are running on empty, so it comes as no surprise that many begin to question whether they’re up to the job anymore.
The most successful women will feel the impact more and are least likely to ask for help from partners or children, let alone their employer or line manager – so there needs to be a strong focus on building corporate awareness.
Lesley Salem is founder of Over The Bloody Moon