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Menopause is something employers should have to sweat, too

I quit my job amid hot flashes and brain fog in the office. With better support, I might have stayed.

The Mayo Clinic estimates the yearly cost of lost work productivity related to menopause symptoms is $1.8 billion.Dragana Gordic/Adobe Stock/Dragana Gordic - stock.adobe.com

I remember the day I began planning my exit from my job in technology marketing. Sweat soaked the band of my bra during a meeting. Not even the office’s aggressive air-conditioning could cool me down.

The project manager voiced her concerns, tossing buzzwords like “roadmap,” “contingency,” and “collaboration” around the glass-and-brick-walled conference room. Every syllable exploded like a hand grenade.

“Can you stop talking?” I asked, my ears ringing.

“Stop talking,” I said, covering my face with my hands.

“Can you please stop? STOP. TALKING!” I lost it. I may have slammed the table.

I was definitely screaming.

I listened helplessly as the echo of my career caromed around the room. I imagined it sideswiping the glossy text-covered whiteboard wall and cracking the glass of the high-definition video screen.

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“I’m sorry,” I said, red-faced and breathless. My teammate sat frozen and wide-eyed across the conference table. “I just can’t.” I swallowed hard and swept my laptop into my tote bag, fleeing the office before the tears came.

I didn’t consider that menopause might have been the root of my outburst. If there was a problem, I assumed it was mine and mine alone to solve. I was burned out. I needed more sleep, more exercise, more fiber.

I was not the only one struggling to keep it together at work. One in three professional women going through menopause reports that her symptoms — like hot flashes, irritability, insomnia, and brain fog — negatively affect her job performance. One in five has quit or considered quitting. An April 2023 Mayo Clinic study estimates the yearly cost of “lost work productivity” related to menopause symptoms at $1.8 billion.

I dealt with symptoms for years. I stripped to my underwear in bathroom stalls so I wouldn’t sweat through my clothes and often turned off my Zoom camera so I could rest my eyes.

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I was more fortunate than most, with generous paid time off, flexible work-from-home options, and outstanding health care coverage. I doubt my employer calculated the time I spent away from my keyboard. But still, something was missing.

Once, I confided in a manager — a woman a few years older than me. When I compared my flagging energy with that of the tireless millennials surrounding us in the office, she said, “Don’t age yourself,” and quickly changed the subject.

The message was clear. Like the first rule in “Fight Club,” the first rule of menopause at work was don’t talk about menopause at work.

Everyone with a uterus will experience menopause — as part of the natural aging process or after surgical removal of the ovaries. Symptoms may begin 10 years before menstruation ends, and although they are different for everyone, they can be brutal mentally and physically (including painful, heavy, or frequent periods that can come at any time).

I watched customers’ brows crinkle with confusion when I stumbled over my words or gripped their hands with sweaty palms. I lost my patience as often as I lost my keys, cellphone, and train of thought. Although I had decades of experience, a master’s degree, and a leadership role, my menopause symptoms had caused my confidence to chip like old paint.

Add ageism and sexism to the mayhem of menopause, and it’s no wonder midlife women who have the means to quit their jobs are doing so — taking a wealth of knowledge and experience with them.

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The result is fewer women managers the higher one looks in an organization. Women make up 52 percent of the professional workforce but 35 percent of the executive ranks. A 2022 survey conducted by McKinsey in partnership with LeanIn.org found that “for every woman at the director level who gets promoted, two women directors are choosing to leave.” In the more than half-century since I was born, the number of women CEOs in the Fortune 500 has inched from 0 to 44.

What do we do for working women in the menopause transition? Not much.

We need employer-sponsored programs to promote menopause awareness, destigmatize symptoms, and accommodate self-care. They would make good business sense and would be a natural extension of pregnancy and childbirth benefits already in place. The goal of these programs would be economic — to attract and retain an experienced workforce. Diversity, equity, and inclusion programs could measure awareness and normalize menopause discussions.

Businesses in Europe get it. The Bank of Ireland, Danske Bank, Deloitte UK, and others have announced programs that address a shrinking workforce with retention programs designed for their menopausal employees.

At the British water utility Severn Trent, all managers must attend menopause training. CEO Liz Garfield urges her staff to help normalize menopause by regularly dropping the word into a conversation. The result: “Women of a certain age have flocked to join the company,” Garfield said on a panel discussion this year. “I think we have better talent, loyaler talent.”

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Four years after I quit my job, I no longer blame myself for my diminished productivity or emotional turmoil. I may have been foggy and emotional at times, but I wasn’t “losing it.”

If only I’d been encouraged to talk about it.

Instead of hiding in a bathroom stall, I might have answered emails while waiting for hot flashes to pass in a comfortable cool-down room. My well-informed (and empathetic) co-workers would have called for a break as tensions escalated. And my manager, noticing the dark circles under my eyes, would have asked if I was OK, shared her experiences, and pointed me toward company-sponsored wellness resources.

I might have stayed, and I’ll always wonder if I gave up on my career too soon.

Catherine Palmer contributes to AARP’s The Ethel and publishes a weekly newsletter about midlife reinvention. She is working on a memoir, “Typing Lessons.”