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Menopause, mental health and the workplace 

Menopause is the time in someone’s[1] life when their periods stop for good and they can no longer get pregnant. It is a reproductive life stage which is associated with fluctuating levels of hormones like oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone. There are 34 widely recognized physical and psychological symptoms of menopause, which begin on average at 48, whereas menopause itself is attained three years later. Symptoms often continue for several years into post-menopause. However, 1% of cis women experience premature menopause – ie, before 40. It can also be triggered by surgery, like having one’s ovaries removed, or medication like Tamoxifen for breast cancer. In fact each person in menopause will experience it differently, not least because it isn’t just a biological phenomenon. Someone’s individual psychological makeup as well as the social context where they live also make a difference.   

Amongst the psychological symptoms of menopause are mood swings, anxiety, panic disorder and depression, all of which are of course mental health challenges. However, because of what is known in the medical literature as the ‘domino effect’, people in menopause may experience mental health problems as the knock on effect of other symptoms, both psychological and physical. For example, heavy and erratic periods and hot flushes are difficult to manage in and of themselves but may also create psychological distress when others notice them. Gaining weight can affect someone’s confidence, as can loss of focus or difficulties with memory. 

We need to understand these symptoms in the context of the workplace. This is for several reasons. First, cis women aged between 50 and 64 are one of the fastest growing groups in the workforce across the global north and are also the group who are most likely to be going through menopause. Second, symptoms can make the workplace a very difficult place to be for the reasons explained above. Third, though, the workplace can also exacerbate menopause-related mental health problems, especially when the right culture and support aren’t in place.

In the session I am facilitating at the This Can Happen conference, I will be expanding on these issues in more detail and sharing some recommendations as to what employers can do to make their workplaces more menopause-friendly around mental health and well-being in particular. 

Jo Brewis
The Open University Business School

[1] It is important to stress that menopause is not only experienced by cis women – transgender men and other gender diverse people can also go through this life stage. As such I have used gender-inclusive language throughout this piece.   

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