Juggling an executive leadership role and life at home with four kids, Melissa MacGowan was on top of her game when, without warning, the physical and emotional changes of perimenopause began to interfere with her life. In a state of hormonal upheaval and confidence knocked, Melissa set out to understand these changes, leading her on a path of self-discovery and transformation. And that feeling of being underprepared for the menopause transition? Well, it’s become a calling to help others who might be struggling with menopause and work so they can thrive in their careers and personal lives. This is Melissa’s story.
Losing my grip
“What sort of crap system is this?” I yelled. “How can we be so stupid that we can’t figure out how to organise these clothes?” I ranted. I wanted to burn the clothes along with the labels I’d made for the drawers. I was obsessed with restoring order and I was ready to fight about it.
It was the little things that seemed to cause me to blow up. Followed by remorse. Most weekends were spent either in tears or in bed. I felt out of control and filled with guilt.
I was the only woman on the senior executive team at work. I was an eldest child, breadwinner, coach, and growth nerd. I’d been called a ‘leader’ since primary school.
It was the anxiety and increasing self-doubt that made the whole experience so unsettling.
For years, I strived to be perceived as a high-performer. I juggled a significant load as a mother of four including twins. I’ve been on parental leave three times, navigated painful periods, pregnancies, pregnancy loss, global relocation, and challenging work situations. Unbeknownst to me, when perimenopause hit, I was on a fast train to burn out.
Exhaustion and despair
It was 2.14am and once again my singlet top was drenched in sweat and my face was wet with tears. Another sleepless night. How am I going to survive tomorrow? How will I support the kids, help my team, do the work, get to the gym, and hold it all together when I’ve barely slept (for two years!). I felt I was going crazy and couldn’t express how I was feeling. Despite seeing seven doctors, I still didn’t know what was going on in my body and mind.
Hot flushes — not cool
At my young age and still not aware that this was perimenopause, I would excuse the hot flushes as a potential virus, poor acclimatisation, another sinus infection. The heat would travel from my feet to my hair roots. It was overwhelming. Like 85% of menopausal women, I was experiencing frequent hot flushes. And they would happen indiscriminately.
Along with recurrent infections, poor sleep, and irregular periods, hot flushes are one of 37 indicators of perimenopause.1 I could tick off many including my libido going walkabout and my tummy growing by the minute.
Validation, at last!
Finally, I tried an integrative GP, one who combines conventional western medicine with evidence-based natural treatments within the mainstream system. When she explained I was in menopause, I froze. In one way, I felt relieved to have a diagnosis, but I was mostly just shocked, as I felt my body had let me down.
“But I’m not old enough,” I said to her. I’d always been fit and healthy. I was a coach and a leader. How could this happen to me? I saw myself as broken and a project to fix.
What is perimenopause?
Perimenopause is the lead-up to a woman’s final menstrual period — the menopause. Perimenopause can cause symptoms like, or even more intense than, those of menopause. Perimenopause usually happens in a woman’s 40s and on average lasts four to six years, but can be as short as one year, or as long as 10. When you’ve had no period for 12 months, you’ve reached menopause and are then considered postmenopausal.2
Menopause and work
I berated myself as I made the same mistake again on a spreadsheet. Hello, hot flush! I was dropping balls at work. I decided I must not be smart enough to do this job. My brain was not functioning well. Turns out that women experience a loss of both grey matter (the brain cells that process information) and white matter (the fibres that connect those cells) through the menopause transition.3
Self-doubt and anxiety intruded into my daily leadership life. It was destabilising to feel less productive and focused. It was tiring to keep striving and stay afloat. In a vicious cycle, workplace challenges, workloads, and other stresses can impact the severity of perimenopause, leading to further embarrassment and stress at work.4
My last period was one to remember. Picture this, I’m in a boardroom with my all-male executive team and, in a flash, I have to excuse myself to go to the bathroom. My last period came on like a flood. Humiliatingly, my body was not playing fair. Suffice to say my eye-rolling compatriots were not impressed.
Three out of five women say menopause negatively impacted their work.5 Almost a million women in the UK have left their jobs due to perimenopause. Another survey showed a staggering 90% of women felt menopause was affecting work performance with many considering a reduction in hours or an exit. There is a reluctance to take sick days and share menopause stories for fear of discrimination. There are fears around stigma and perceptions of strength and ability, so we create a silencing around our bodies.6
How can workplaces help?
As the role of women at work has changed over the last few decades, the impact of menopause in the workplace is somewhat new territory. Developing managers and leaders is a powerful lever towards a culture of belonging, engagement, and performance.
Some companies provide specific benefits and training programs, additional sick leave support, medical support, and flexible working. Others are embracing mindfulness and facing into taboo subjects like menopause with intention.
Greater awareness and discussion will increase psychological safety. Once we realise women at work in their late 40s and into their 50s are in the menopause transition, we can normalise the impacts on women’s health and better support this life stage to increase contribution, retention, and equity.
We know workplace support leads to better retention and productivity, and happier and healthier employees.
We have much to learn
So much surprised me: from my lack of preparedness to the negative perception and absence of open discussions. I never expected navigating menopause to be so overwhelming and confusing. I learned menopausal women have great value, wisdom, experience, and power. I learned our negative views impact the meaning and experience of menopause.
In India, women have few issues other than cycle changes. Night sweats and hot flushes are lower amongst Japanese women compared to African-American women, amongst whom symptoms are much more prevalent.
Menopause was the trigger for greater self-discovery
“Slowing down might be the hardest thing you ever do,” said my husband, Stewart, after I quit my job. Slowing down in this fast-past world is scary. I was conditioned to push myself, blame myself, and then shame myself. I believed it had to be hard to be a successful leader, woman, mother, and partner.
I have a Graduate Certificate in Business and Human Resources and a Bachelor of Science and Physical Education. I have been growing for as long as I remember but I was not equipped for menopause. I rushed through my 30s and stumbled through my 40s. Menopause helped me develop self-compassion and cut myself some slack. I became kinder to myself and established a clear purpose for the next season of my life.
I never expected navigating menopause to be so overwhelming and confusing. Menopause was growthful, deeply uncomfortable yet transformative. I upgraded my habits and mindsets to reclaim my self-belief and support my purpose to help others.
My mission is to raise awareness and help women who might be struggling with menopause and work so they can thrive in their careers and personal lives. If women feel vital, families can be solid and workplaces inclusive which is expansive for all of us.
Some final reflections:
- Menopause is not a problem to be fixed but it can be hideous and lonely.
- Menopause is not spoken about enough so it is misunderstood and has stigma.
- Menopause impacts women, partners, families, friends, and work.
- Reducing burnout symptoms and reevaluating stress is critical.
- Women deserve validation and support from health practitioners.
- Community, connection, and contribution for women are key.
A note from Melissa: If you would like to chat about Menopause, I would love to connect firstname.lastname@example.org. If you’re a female leader struggling with issues related to work and menopause, I invite you to schedule a brief call using this link to connect and know you’re not alone.
Written by Melissa MacGowan. Melissa is a leadership expert, coach, and consultant. She is passionate about leadership, performance, inclusion, well-being, and raising awareness about menopause after her experience of premature menopause as a senior executive.
Sources: 1 Harvard Health Publishing | 2 Jean Hailes | 3 Scientific Reports, Mosconi L, Berti V, Dyke J, et al. ‘Menopause impacts human brain structure, connectivity, energy metabolism, and amyloid-beta deposition‘, June 2021 | 4 Case Reports in Women’s Health, Carter S, Jay O, Black K, ‘Talking about menopause in the workplace’, 2021 | 5 CIPD | 6 Women Work and the Menopause, ‘The Prime Project Findings – Menopause at Work’