Manage Embarrassing Menopause Symptoms at Work - Stella
Menopause at work

How to deal with embarrassing menopause symptoms at work

byJeneva Patterson

Jeneva works for the Centre for Creative Leadership, helping global business and political leaders drive and lead teams and organisations through transformational change. But how did she carry on with her work while undergoing her own challenging transition into menopause?

My job means I stand in front of senior executives, typically from hyper-corporate cultures, for hours, and days, at a time. The setting could be a hotel ballroom for 1,000 people, an event centre conference room for 100, or a French chateau living room for 10.  After 20 years, I am a pro at getting ready for any event, any audience, in any place. I was used to being able to focus all of my attention on the client’s culture and ace any engagement. 

And then I couldn’t. 

Derailed by lava-hot eruptions

I was beating myself up for not having been able to ‘gain control’ over a biologically imperative function”

My first ‘public’ hot flush was in front of the Executive Committee of a publicly traded, Fortune 50 company. I was blindsided. After six months of perimenopause, I’d had hot flushes but only at night. Naively, I thought that these intrusions wouldn’t dare erupt all over my face and body while I was teaching! In an instant, I learned otherwise. My sweat-drenched, white Armani blouse stuck to my arms, back and belly while I ashamedly postponed that afternoon’s lecture on authentic leadership.

The irony wasn’t lost on me.  There I was, teaching how important it is for leaders to embody authenticity, while I was beating myself up for not having been able to ‘gain control’ over a biologically imperative function. To make matters worse, the client wasn’t even upset that I’d had a hot flush. They were only disappointed that I’d known I could have had one and hadn’t made any contingency plan, like bringing another blouse or asking for a break, in the event I needed to excuse myself for obvious reasons.

Find out more about hot flushes in our symptoms library.

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The sheer energy needed to hide symptoms

After a few years of deception, I finally decided to truly live in my body”

This incident would only be one of many instances over several years where I insisted on thinking I could hide what was happening and deny its impact on my professional life.  By spending so much energy trying to covertly manage my perimenopausal symptoms, I’d stressed myself out to such an extent that not only was I behaving inauthentically, I was essentially negligent towards my own body.

While I’d like to share that it didn’t take long for me to take care of myself, that wasn’t the case. After a few years of deception, I finally decided to truly live in my body on a November day when, sitting with a male colleague in a conference room, that familiar heat rush spread like flames over my neck and face. By this time, the feeling was familiar and I’d prepared myself by practicing what I’d say and do in front of whomever I was with if it looked like I’d skillfully swallowed hot coals without anyone noticing.

Empathy is everything

I just need to take a bio-break”

Face aflame, sweat dripping off my eyebrows, I looked at Mario across the table, and said, “Mario, I’m having a hot flush so I just need to take a bio-break.” To my delight and surprise, Mario mirrored my authenticity, didn’t miss a beat, and replied, “Jeneva, after many years of witnessing my wife try to sublimate her biological needs in service of damaging social norms, I’m grateful that you’re sharing your experience with me. After we’re done, I plan on calling my wife to let her know that she’s not alone.”  

That meeting with Mario was one of a few pivotal moments in my menopause journey at work.  Mario’s relief at how I’d matter-of-factly taken care of my needs, as if I’d simply said I was famished and needed a snack, helped me to understand how I’d inadvertently helped him and his wife to be more authentic too. That simple conversation, lasting no more than two minutes, helped to release Mario, his wife and me from hiding behind outdated and unhealthy social norms.

Six ideas to help you during the working day

  • Call a bio-break. After my conversation with Mario, I promised myself I’d be as forthcoming with my menopause needs as I had been with any other personal necessity that called for my attention during work. For twenty years, in ballrooms and conference rooms across the world, I’d used ‘bio-break’ to mean I needed to use the facilities, get some coffee or stretch my legs. Having a hot flush, losing my breath or feeling foggy went under the same heading, no apologies.
  • Layer your clothing and wear dark colours. There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing. I learned this after living in rainy Denmark for a decade. If Danes waited for Florida-like sunshine to enjoy their gorgeous landscape, they would never enjoy their gorgeous landscape. Their rain gear is unparalleled. Make your own unparalleled clothing choices when perimenopausal. If there’s any likelihood you’ll be drenched by the afternoon, wear layers that you’re able to peel off, and then put back on, depending on your body temperature and whatever inside or outside climate you happen to be in. Light colors show sweat on any skin tone. Go darker.
  • Be ultra prepared. Carry around a change of clothes if you sweat through your layers. When I go to the gym I bring a change of clothing because I sweat a lot. My menopausal sweat and my gym sweat are in fact the same sweat, from the same pores, with the same results. I applied my gym mentality to my work mentality and brought my gym bag to work with a change of clothes in it. I also carried a small, accordion fan with me in the event I felt well enough to stay in the meeting but was still too hot. 
  • Normalise what’s happening. Embarrassed? Yes, me too. Sometimes going through a hot flush or any other visible symptom can feel very uncomfortable. The good news is that those near you are often just as embarrassed. This means that everyone is more or less feeling the same, which, I taught myself, normalises the feeling and, for me, rendered any embarrassment meaningless. The more self-conscious I was, the more self-conscious were others – a vicious cycle. After Mario and I spoke, I resolved and felt immense relief doing so, to feel neutral-to-confident about whatever I was experiencing, as if I were having a sneezing fit, or a tickling cough that wouldn’t go away. I would do what I needed to do to keep, or regain, composure and move on. 
  • Be your body’s champion. There were times at work, nevertheless, when I felt incapacitated as if I’d had bad flu and couldn’t manage working. I needed to stay in bed, get rest and recover. What I learned was that by not fighting my biology, by caring for myself as I would if one of my children were sick, for example, my body cared for itself. Without my head, my body was fine! Meaning, by releasing my anxiety, self-criticism and paranoia, I went from being my body’s biggest obstacle to being my body’s champion and friend. 
  • Share your experience. Any social movement which makes it difficult for individuals and groups to thrive needs more than one person to create lasting change. The conversation around menopause has started to change. I’ve begun to see more writing on it [i], more podcasts discussing it[ii], and more policies supporting it[iii]. Bring your voice to the conversation to help make menopause a topic as ordinary as a toothache, but as fascinating as a pregnancy.  The female body is astonishingly complex and by sharing our unique stories about our universal experiences, we can together mobilise the greater culture as it disinherits demeaning menopause stereotypes, fallacious or incomplete statistics, while earning much-needed positive public attention and additional medical research. 

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