‘The menopause has been absolutely devastating for me’

All too often the menopause is accompanied by a baleful assortment of side effects, which can make work a struggle. But as HELEN MCGURK discovers change is in the air.....
Amanda SweetloveAmanda Sweetlove
Amanda Sweetlove

Mention the word ‘menopause’ at work and it is likely to elicit stunned silence, a clumsy joke or a hot flush of embarrassment and queasiness among male workers who would rather remain oblivious to ‘women’s problems’.

And yet, the menopause is a fact of life for half the population - as natural as periods (oops, more male mortification!) and pregnancy.

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For most women, the menopause will last between one and four years, typically between the ages of 47 and 51. It is a normal life event for women, not an illness or a medical condition, but that often means that the symptoms are too often under recognised, trivialised and not taken seriously.

The menopause is commonly referred to as ‘the change’, a bland word that holds none of the distress and despair of endless hot flushes, depression, mood swings, brain fog and eradication of libido that many women experience.

Amanda Sweetlove, 49, from Belfast, knows only too well, how awful it can be, describing her menopausal symptoms as ‘debilitating, absolutely debilitating.’

The mum-of-two became perimenopausal (the time in a women’s life before menopause) five years ago and admits dealing with her symptoms and her job as frontline ambulance staff became extremely difficult to cope with.

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‘‘What brought it to my attention was the sweats. It wasn’t just at nighttime, it was while I was on duty. I was dripping sweat on top of a patient. There was no controlling it. I could have lain down on the stretcher beside the patient because when you take a flush like that, you become extremely fatigued. You are exhausted all the time.’’

So-called ‘brain fog’ was also a major problem for Amanda.

‘‘If I was driving on an emergency call I had to be extra vigilant because my concentration levels just weren’t the same.’’

And depression, which many menopausal women report, was a distressing issue for Amanda.

‘‘I had low self-esteem, paranoia and lack of confidence. I also became very emotional. I would have found myself crying with patients in situations that wouldn’t have had an impact on me before. In the job that I was doing at the time, it just wasn’t a very practical way to live.’’

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Amanda says her symptoms were also challenging for her crew mate.

‘‘In the winter I’d be driving with the window open in my short-sleeve shirt and he’d be siting in his winter clothes, with the heating on and the window up - so he suffered as well.’’

Amanda is currently on temporary secondment as a complaints manger and continues to advocate on behalf of women.

‘‘About two and a half years ago in the ambulance service we decided to set up a women’s forum, which I chair. We are actively working on how we can set up a policy within the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service (NIAS) to cover menopausal symptoms in women.’’

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Numerous women have approached Amanda explaining how they struggle at work and feel embarrassed talking to their employer about the menopause.

‘‘Women are frightened to say, but they are starting to become stronger because they know there is a group of women who are rallying and trying to set things up for them.

‘‘On the other hand, I have had a couple of very compassionate managers come to me and ask my advice on how to deal with the issue.’’

Whilst some organisations are progressive, many, Amanda believes, have a long way to go.

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‘‘If the majority of your colleagues are male and they are laughing at you, it is really absolutely awful. The behaviour surrounding it is atrocious, but I think it’s just ignorance because it has been taboo for so long.

‘‘Men really haven’t had their eyes opened because their mothers didn’t talk about the menopause and now they are watching their wives and thinking ‘did my mum actually go through all that and keep quiet about it’.

‘‘We need to keep talking about the menopause. Every woman in the world will go through it, whether they suffer through it or whether they have an easy ride.’’

Menopause symptoms are protected under employment law through the Equalities Act 2010. It’s an employer’s responsibility to support employees at work. Even for those without menopause policies, existing policies such as sickness or flexible working will cover menopause.

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However, the most many employers offer to their menopausal women in the workplace are fans – but is this enough?

In many workplaces the menopause remains a taboo subject, forcing women to suffer in silence through varying degrees of physical, mental or emotional disturbances. However, some have woken up to the need to address this silence in the workplace before it turns into a clamour in the doctor’s surgery

Last October the Police Service of Northern Ireland launched its Menopause Workplace Guide. Currently a third of police officers in Northern are female, and overall women make up 57 per cent of police staff.

Assistant Chief Constable Mark Hamilton said: “I recognise the importance of supporting our officers and staff through the menopause ensuring everyone is treated with dignity and respect which in turn helps to maintain a healthy and engaged police service.”

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Earlier this week Derry City and Strabane District Council agreed to adopt a new menopause policy for employees.

It is understood it is the first council in all of Northern Ireland to adopt this kind of strategy, which aims to outline what menopause is, reduce absenteeism due to menopausal symptoms and provide support to manage symptoms at work.

The policy was proposed last year by SDLP councillor Shauna Cusack, who said the move was “a further step to getting women the support and understanding they need in the workplace”.

“Let’s hope other employers and councils follow suit. Here’s to breaking the silence,” she added.

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Alliance councillor Rachael Ferguson, who backed the motion said she hoped menopause policy and guidance will now be ‘‘commonplace across other councils as a positive step forward for women in the workplace.’’

Elaine Hutton, a personal trainer, who ran The Menopause Cafe at Bangor’s Aurora Leisure Centre for 13 months said:‘‘I think employers need to be more aware of it, definitely.

“Women are working longer now, we don’t retire at 50 or 60 anymore.’’

She also suggested employers need to be cognisant of ‘the simple things’.

‘‘If you are in an environment where you need to wear a heavy uniform in the winter, some ladies can’t wear that, so employers should make an allowance for this.’’

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