Menopause at Work: Is It Hot in This Conference Room, Or Is It Just Me?

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis
c.2008 Newhouse News Service
Photo of Hester Sonder by Jane Therese

Terri Bell knew menopause was hurting her work performance. She couldn't sleep at night and spent the whole day irritable, dying for a nap.

When a new medicine finally gave her relief from menopause symptoms, she could function again. Her attention span and productivity improved drastically and she even got a raise at her medical billing job.

"I was able to speak to clients in a friendlier way," said Bell, 52, of Yardley, Pa. "To have those symptoms go away makes a whole change in your life."

The average age of menopause is 51, according to the National Institute on Aging. Symptoms can begin several years before a woman's last menstrual period, a transition known as perimenopause.

There are 17 million women between 45 and 54 years old in the U.S. work force, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For those in the midst of what their grandmothers called "the change of life," managing the workday brings a host of challenges. How do you cope when your short-term memory flakes out? What do you do when a hot flash hits in the middle of a presentation?

Their mothers had to grin and bear it. But today's women are finding ways to work around menopause symptoms, or just gracefully explaining the situation to colleagues and supervisors.

"With the baby boomers getting where they are, it's time to shatter all the myths and fears around menopause," said Michelle Yozzo-Drake, a Mystic, Conn.-based career coach and author of "From the Kitchen to the Corner Office."

Women often worry that if colleagues know they're going through menopause, they'll think they won't have enough energy, emotional stability or focus for the job, Yozzo-Drake said.

But keeping it a secret could cause bigger problems.

Yozzo-Drake coached one executive whose subordinates assumed she didn't like a proposal when actually she was having a hot flash: "They would put out ideas in their senior leadership meetings, and she would be stone-faced and stoic and starting to get red, and then starting to get fidgety, which is what happens because you're physically uncomfortable."

The executive disclosed she was going through menopause and encouraged her staff simply to ask if they thought her body language was signaling a negative response.

"That triggered them being more open about their concerns instead of saying, `She's not buying in, kill the project,"' Yozzo-Drake said. "It brought about more cohesiveness to a management team that was traditionally difficult."

Menstrual symptoms stem from fluctuating levels of estrogen and progesterone as the ovaries produce eggs less regularly and eventually stop. Symptoms can last months or even years after menopause. The top three are hot flashes, night sweats and insomnia, said Hester Sonder, a gynecologist in Philadelphia who specializes in menopause. All diminish concentration, increase irritability and worsen mood swings another symptom.

A hot flash typically lasts only a few minutes, so often a woman can excuse herself and leave the room.

"It's happened in the operating room where sweat is dripping off from under my surgical mask into the sterile field," said Sonder, 57. "I'll walk out of the room and take a cold compress."

Since hot flashes can occur up to 25 times a day, a woman may want to explain the situation. Otherwise people may assume she's volatile, seriously ill, or just flaky.

"I don't worry about what people think about me going through menopause. I'm more concerned about what they'll think if they don't know," Yozzo-Drake said.

But in many work cultures, it's inappropriate to discuss your health or personal topics, said Ruth Haag, a management consultant and coach in Sandusky, Ohio.

"It's like having hemorrhoids at work." Haag said. "Nobody wants to hear about it."

She cautions women against sabotaging themselves by sharing too much personal information. Many people experience problems like sleep disruption as they age, regardless of menopause. And younger employees may be sleep-deprived due to small children or late nights out, Haag noted.

Stephanie Mesler-Evans, a music teacher in Columbus, Ohio, copes with short-term memory loss by keeping her lesson plan in sight.

" Usually whatever thought I'm trying to find is on the page in front of me," said Mesler-Evans, 51.

She leaves notes to herself and schedules reminders to pop up on her computer. And she takes lots of cold showers and wears the lightest clothing possible.

Accepting the symptoms instead of fighting them has really helped.

"Maybe it's the body's way of letting me know that I'm allowed to not be on top of everything," Mesler-Evans said.

Tips for managing menopause symptoms:

Consult with your doctor about which medicines or hormones might help.

Dress in layers so you can maintain a comfortable temperature.

Take an early afternoon nap, if possible.

Keep a paper trail that will get you back on track if your short-term memory fizzles.

Eat a healthy diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables.

Exercise on a regular basis and maintain a healthy weight.

Limit or eliminate alcohol and caffeine.

When you wake at night, try meditating or light reading. If you stress about falling back to sleep, you won't.

This article was originally published by Newhouse News Service on Tuesday, August 5, 2008.