Menopause on the NHS front-line

March 10, 2020

Of all the workplaces in which to experience the menopause, you might think you’d be best off in a organisation dedicated to providing world class health care. Surely if you and your colleagues are professionally trained to look after people, you should be in safe hands.

But according to one NHS employee, that’s not the case. Staff shortages and budget pressures left her feeling that the overall attitude to women going through the menopause is: “just get on with it.”

Anne, a 53-year-old who has held her current post in the NHS for over a decade, started experiencing difficult symptoms last year.

“I was low, I was flat, I just wasn’t myself,” she recalls. “It was like I’d had a change of personality.

“I was tired all the time at work. I had no motivation, no enthusiasm.”

The mother of three added that many of the symptoms came as a surprise to her.

“I’d heard about the night sweats and that sort of thing,” she explains. “But I knew nothing about the anxiety or the low moods, or the night terrors, which were horrendous.”

And Anne says that even working for an institution designed to take care of people, there was little support available to help her deal with the significant challenges she suddenly faced.

“The thing about the NHS is that the work has to be done, and it has to be done no matter what. The patients come first, and I completely understand that. But we’re still human, and it would have helped me enormously to have had some flexibility when it came to my job – to work from home every now and again, or to have been able to change my hours from time to time. But the culture is that you have to be on site and you have to be seen.”

Mental health

Anne, who specialises in mental health, also feels that the symptoms she experienced – which she says have improved since she started taking hormone replacement therapy – clearly had an effect on her work.

“Getting up in the morning became a struggle,” she recalls.

“But part of my job is to motivate others. I’ve got to be quite enthusiastic, to be in a good place.

“It’s quite challenging, difficult work. But all of a sudden it was me who was struggling.”

Anne is also sympathetic to the many pressures faced by the NHS as an organisation.

“There’s a lot of difficulties with staff shortages,” she says, “and that means everyone is under more pressure.”

That kind of pressure even led Anne, who works in the East Midlands, to consider leaving her job.

“I got close to quitting at one point,” she says. “The way I was feeling, with the lack of sleep and the terrible anxiety, I just couldn’t see myself continuing.

“It’s very stressful when you’re feeling under par, and you have to look after yourself as well as your patients.”

Anne added that physical factors are often also not taken into account my employers.

“There’s no air conditioning in our office, and last summer we were working in temperatures of around 30C – it was insufferable. So, if you’re going through the menopause and feeling hot and sweaty, then working in that kind of heat becomes extremely difficult. It was just awful.”

Anne says a lot of her colleagues have had similar experiences.

Working through it

“But the attitude seems to be ‘just get on with it’,” she says. “Yet these women who need extra support during menopause are often the most experienced NHS employees you could ask for.

“It seems wrong that we don’t get more help. Is it a surprise that a lot of women start to leave the NHS at around 50 to 55? It makes me wonder that maybe they’re feeling worn out and tired and putting that down to the job when actually it’s the menopause.

“All employers need to take the menopause more seriously, to look at providing opportunities to work from home, or have more flexibility. It’s really important.

“And when your job is to care for vulnerable people, it seems fair enough to ask for some more support and care for ourselves, to make us more comfortable and to make us more effective.

“It’s just the basic things. A decent fan can make a big difference. And it would help if more information was provided at work about what the menopause actually involves.

“People find it a surprise and a mystery, and not knowing what is going on can be very frightening.

“I work in mental health and I actually thought I was having a break down.”