What is Menopause?
Menopause is a natural transition in a woman’s life cycle. The word menopause comes from Greek origin – Menos meaning monthly and Pausos meaning to stop. So menopause is literally the time when a woman’s monthly periods stop.
When Does Menopause Happen?
Menopause usually happens between the ages of 45 and 55 but may happen sooner or later. The average age for women to reach menopause in the UK is 51.
Menopause itself is just one day in a woman’s life – it is the date 12 consecutive period free months from the date of her last menstrual period.
Anything before that day is classed as pre-menopause, and anything after that day is known as post menopause.
There is a period of time known as peri menopause – which simply means ‘around the time of’ menopause in which a woman’s body begins the journey towards menopause. During this period her hormones can become out of balance and the release of eggs slows down. It is during this peri-menopausal period that women often develop menopausal symptoms.
Peri-menopause usually starts 4-6 years before menopause but it can start as much as 10 years before. This means that some women may actually begin to see menopausal symptoms starting while they are still in their late 30s or early 40s.
This is important since we tend to associate menopause with older women and therefore we may not recognise the symptoms as perimenopause in younger women.
Some women may reach menopause earlier than expected due to a condition known as Premature Ovarian Insufficiency or POI. It is unclear as to why some women fail to produce sufficient hormones to support egg production but about 1% of the female population will experience POI and menopause under the age of 40. And POI can affect women at any age, even as young as their teens.
Women may also experience early menopause as the result of surgical or medical intervention such as a hysterectomy where the womb is removed or removal of one or both ovaries, known as oophorectomy.
Some cancer treatments can also bring on an early menopause.
As women enter peri-menopause some may develop symptoms that can make life quite uncomfortable.
Around a quarter of women will be lucky and will sail through menopause without really noticing. However for the remaining 75% they are likely to experience one or more symptoms. These symptoms are caused by changes in hormone levels, specifically a fluctuation in the 3 main sex hormones – oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone.
The more erratic a woman’s hormones are the more likely she is to experience severe or diverse symptoms. About 25% of women will have severe and quite debilitating symptoms.
Women have oestrogen receptors all over their body, in the skin, the heart, the bones, the brain – in fact, pretty much every tissue in the body.
As oestrogen levels drop various parts of the body can be affected leading to a number of symptoms. Many of these symptoms creep up on women quite insidiously and may not even be recognised as menopausal symptoms. Read my article about the hidden symptoms of menopause here.
In fact, there are 34 recognised symptoms of menopause.
Essentially symptoms fall into 3 categories:
Physical symptoms include hot flushes and night sweats, aching joints, sore or bleeding gums, erratic and often very heavy periods, insomnia and fatigue, itchy dry skin, vaginal dryness and changes to the tissue around the vagina which can lead to recurring urinary tract infections, headaches and migraines, hair loss and weight gain.
Psychological symptoms include increased anxiety, depression, low self confidence and low self esteem. Brain fog is a term often used to describe short term memory problems, confused thinking and a lack of concentration
Emotional symptoms can include mood swings, tearfulness, irritability, frustration and fear.
How Long Do Menopausal Symptoms Last?
Women will generally be symptomatic for around 4-6 years however it can be longer. Often women will remain symptomatic for a few years post menopause.
Since not all women will experience symptoms, and most won’t experience all 34, it is impossible to view menopause with a one size fits all mindset.
The key point to remember is that NO TWO WOMEN WILL EXPERIENCE MENOPAUSE IN THE SAME WAY and therefore every individual will have their own philosophy around how they cope with and manage their menopause.
How Can Employers Help?
Menopause is not an illness, but as we can see, the vast range of symptoms can, for many women, leave them feeling unwell. It is therefore important that employers recognise the impact of menopause on a woman’s health and wellbeing and take appropriate measures to support their female workers through this transitional period.
There are many ways that employers can help. Having clear policy or guidance for managers and colleagues provides a clear pathway to follow when implementing support measures. Providing awareness training for both managers and colleagues can help enormously too, since greater awareness leads to better understanding and better outcomes.
Research carried out by trades unions and the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development suggest that the symptoms that cause women the most difficulty in the workplace are hot flushes, anxiety, fatigue and brain fog.
These symptoms can lead women to feel like they’re not performing at their best resulting in a loss of confidence and a sense of incompetency. Most of the time this is their own perception but occasionally symptoms will have a negative impact on performance and workplace support can help to bring her back up to speed.
One of the biggest hurdles to a woman asking for help within the workplace is a lack of awareness and understanding of what she is dealing with amongst her colleagues and managers coupled with a fear of being negatively judged or disadvantaged as a result of her disclosing her symptoms.
Of course the responsibility for managing a woman’s menopause is hers but often a few small adjustments within the workplace can make an enormous difference. Check out my previous article on reasonable adjustments.
Hopefully you now have a better understanding of what menopause is, when it generally happens, why it happens, the symptoms and how it can affect some women.
If you’re an employer or an HR professional you may want to support your managers and colleagues by providing awareness training.
Floresco Training and Coaching offers a range of training options including classroom based group workshops, online group training, e-learning packages and 1:1 coaching for individuals. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to find out how we can help.