‘I thought I had dementia’: How more menopause support is needed in the workplace

Diversity Project discusses how employers can assist women through menopause

Menopause is moving from a rarely discussed topic to one that workplaces and civil society are keen to promote awareness of, and the Diversity Project took on the latter last week with a webinar on mental health, nutrition and exercise in menopause.

Panellists looked at what workplaces can do to promote a healthy approach from management and staff towards this once-taboo topic.

At the top of the list of advice for employers was educating the workforce about menopause and ensuring effective workplace support mechanisms are in place for women going through menopause.

That is – according to the founder of Women of a Certain Stage, Lauren Chiren – if we are serious about having women working later into life.

Keeping the discussion going

During the webinar, Chiren explained one of the main problems is most women themselves do not understand this biological process.

“All the surveys that have been carried out about menopause show that between 86% and 96% of women don’t know what menopause is, nor how it is going to impact them,” she said.

Chiren said, at first, she did not realise she was experiencing menopause in her early 40s: “I left my job thinking I had early onset dementia.”

She now works with employers to ensure they do not unnecessarily lose talent in this way.

Fellow panellist and Julius Baer, head of risk management, Monique King, said there is plenty more employers could be doing: “We have private medical insurance in corporates, and [menopause is] not covered in the private medical schemes that we have in place today.

“I think it’s that awareness piece and constant discussion and education that will bring the change that we need to see.”

The panel discussed a variety of things that can support people going through menopause, including nutrition, exercise, sleep and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) as well through medication such as hormone replacement therapy.

Mental health first aid instructor, Peter Slater, described how CBT might be applied. He said the therapy looks for an activating event, the beliefs or thoughts from that activating event and then the consequences of those beliefs. “We call it ABC,” said Slater.    

For menopause, he said, the activating event might be experiencing a hot flush, the beliefs around it might be “everyone is looking at me and judging me because I am sweating”, and the consequence could be to cause the individual stress and maybe make the sweating worse.

“What CBT is trying to do is look at what is that activating event and then try to look at those thoughts and beliefs to try and reduce the negative reaction, trying to learn more of a neutral response to put the individual back in control and be able to cope with that situation,” said Slater.

An individual path

Nutrition featured heavily in the discussion, with Chiren saying when we get older, our bodies can become less tolerant of unhealthy dietary habits such as processed foods, high-sugar foods, caffeine and alcohol. She also noted fluctuating oestrogen levels during menopause can interact with the body’s histamine response and lead to new food sensitivities.

The nutrition advice for individuals during menopause, as with keeping physically active, was to find what works for you. But, Chiren said, caring for yourself through staying hydrated and eating healthier food is generally helpful, and staying active and keeping muscles strong is “non-negotiable.”

The panellists commented on the challenge of self-care for working women who are now “doing the jobs of their mothers [and] doing the jobs of their fathers,” as Chiren put it.

All three also discussed how stress and depression can be the thing that gets treated by medical professionals before it is recognised the individual is going through menopause, highlighting again the need for increased awareness and education.

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