Early Menopause Led To Workplace Menopause Policy - Stella
Her story
6 min

Early menopause inspired my workplace menopause policy

byDawn Coker

When she was 35, Dawn’s crippling pain from endometriosis led to her having a hysterectomy. When the pain continued despite the operation, she had her ovaries removed two years later, which led to surgical menopause. Returning to work was a nightmare for Dawn, and one which played a big part in her developing and implementing a menopause policy at her workplace. She shares her story below.

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Endometriosis pain and surgical menopause

I began suffering with symptoms of endometriosis when I was 30, after giving birth to my daughter, Hannah. After many investigations, I underwent sterilisation, at which point they realised how bad it had become. The doctors suggested booking me in for a partial hysterectomy, which would hopefully relieve the pain. I was 35, had two children and knew I didn’t want to expand my family, so decided to go ahead.

Following the operation, the pain hadn’t subsided, and two years later I was back at my doctor’s, where they gave me the option of an oophorectomy, which would remove my ovaries. Hurrah, I thought, the pain will be gone, and I can get back to being a 37-year-old. However, this wasn’t to be, and I was thrust into early menopause.The first symptom was the hot flushes, which began within a month of surgery. These were the kind that left you with wet sheets at night and wet clothes by day. As a result, I was having trouble sleeping, and next up the brain fog kicked in!

Lack of support at work

Returning to work, I was still recovering, experiencing these debilitating symptoms, and my colleagues just didn’t understand or care for what I was going through. I’d be sat in meetings with perspiration dripping down my face, forgetting the names of people who I’d worked with for years, and entering a meeting room to then have a mind blank as to why I was there.

Working in the banking industry at the time, which was male dominated, I felt quite alone in what I was experiencing. The few women that there were just didn’t pay an interest as they were young (like me) and didn’t know what the menopause was

It was stressful as well as embarrassing having to manage my symptoms whilst working at full capacity, repeatedly explaining to everyone that I was going through early menopause.

I felt quite alone in what I was experiencing.”

I became almost withdrawn, and I just wasn’t myself. I was never frightened of having a conversation about menopause with males in the business, that didn’t bother me. What bothered me was the complete lack of support, how awkward and difficult I was made to feel, and how I had no-one to talk to.

Feeling like I was internally combusting, I’d ask if I could sit by the window, but it often fell on deaf ears. I’d often say, ‘I’m having a moment’ in a light-hearted way, but in reality, this was no joke.

Tips for coping at work

I developed personal coping strategies to help manage my symptoms whilst at work. These included: 

  1. Carrying a small flask filled with ice to relieve the hot flushes
  2. Drawing a picture of the table during meetings so I could refer back to names and job titles to help with brain fog
  3. Jotting down discussion points for upcoming meetings to help focus
  4. Wearing short-sleeved tops, even in winter, or layering clothing so I could remove as and when a hot flush came on

After three months of struggling at home and at work, I was prescribed HRT and, whilst my symptoms never completely disappeared, I found maintaining a healthier diet alongside the HRT eased them enough for me to get on with my life. 

Dealing with coming off HRT, an affair and divorce

Some 10 years later, when I was 47, I was advised to come off HRT, and my menopausal symptoms returned for a further decade. I had to restart that educational process all over again with my colleagues, justifying my menopausal symptoms, which was so draining. At the same time, my then husband had an affair and we divorced. I believe that the decrease in my libido and other menopause symptoms such as low mood and fatigue, contributed to the affair.

The divorce left me homeless, and I ended up moving house eight times, with two children.”

I was menopausal, and emotionally and physically drained.

From homelessness to chief operating officer

Enough was enough! I left the banking sector and moved into the private sector. This is where I finally felt comfortable discussing menopause and I used my experience of managing my own menopause in the workplace to help HR roll out support to staff, especially around female health issues.

In January 2017, at the age of 54, I joined Access2Funding as head of training and bought my own home -I felt like I’d turned my life around! Two years later, I became chief operating officer and a 50% shareholder in the business.

Menopause is an ongoing health issue

In 2021, I became chief executive officer. I developed and rolled out our menopause policy to encourage open conversations about menopause in the workplace and ensure employees don’t go through what I did.

Our menopause policy considers menopausal symptoms as an ongoing health issue, rather than instances of ill health. The policy covers flexible working, workplace adjustments and management training, and is applicable to both females and males within the organisation.

Men need to know about menopause too

From my experience, it’s important to educate men on the menopause and get them involved in the conversation, too. Education and training are key to breaking the stigma attached to menopause and transforming workplace cultures. Men can use a menopause policy to better understand what may be affecting their colleagues, as well as their wives, partners, mothers, or friends outside work.

Education and training are key to breaking the stigma attached to menopause and transforming workplace cultures.”

Workplaces need to support their staff

As an SME in the financial services industry, I’m particularly proud of our policy and how well received it has been both inside and outside the organisation. Since launching, we’ve had several other businesses across the UK asking us if we can share our policy so they can implement their own. 

I’ve also had messages of support sent to me via email and social media. I’ll never forget the lady that reached out to me on LinkedIn and thanked me for raising awareness of early menopause brought about by surgery. Her daughter was in an awful car accident and had to undergo a full hysterectomy because of her injuries, forcing her into menopause at the age of 22.

Final word

I will continue to support women in business and to champion the retention of female talent, with a menopause policy being just one of many ways of achieving this. Including menopause support by making apps like Stella available through workplace benefits is definitely worth considering. I like to think I am proof that there is life on the other side of menopause, as inspiration for other women. No woman, whatever their age, should have to suffer in silence.

Read more about menopause on our blog or in our symptoms library.

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