‘Menopause at 37 made my working life hell – no woman should have to suffer in silence’

·4-min read
Dawn Coker is the chief executive of Access2Funding and introduced an official menopause policy
Dawn Coker is the chief executive of Access2Funding and introduced an official menopause policy

I went into menopause at the age of 37. It didn’t happen naturally; after being diagnosed with endometriosis, I had both my ovaries removed to tackle the pain.

Luckily I’d already had my two children. My daughter was six, my son 12, and I didn’t want any more. But even so, I cried at knowing the decision was now completely out of my hands.

This wasn’t the only fallout of being thrust into menopause early. For most women it’s something that happens gradually – for me it was instant and sudden. I was working in the finance sector at the time, for a bank, and my job involved frequent travel between my home city of Liverpool and both London and Edinburgh. Doing this while going through the menopause was physically and mentally exhausting. I suffered memory loss that made me feel stupid and had horrific hot flushes on trains and planes. By the time I disembarked for my meetings, my hair would be plastered to my head with perspiration.

My colleagues knew I’d had a medical issue but, because I was a workaholic and was keeping the show on the road, no one fully realised what I was going through. On the outside my career was progressing, but inside I struggled.

Even today, there is precious little understanding of the menopause in the workplace. Back then, at the tail end of the Nineties, there was even less – especially in a male-dominated office like mine. It wasn’t something anyone wanted to talk about. So I felt I had no option but to put on a brave face.

All my direct line managers were men, who didn’t fully understand why sometimes I needed to go home early, sit near a window for fresh air or have a fan on my desk. My symptoms were debilitating and embarrassing but I felt I couldn’t speak to anyone, male or female, about what I was going through.

Eventually, in the early Noughties, I took voluntary redundancy and entered the small and medium enterprise sector. But here there was even less understanding than in financial services. We were all set key performance indicators and were expected to deliver, no ifs and no buts.

Still enduring the unpleasant side-effects of menopause, work felt even harder than before. It didn’t help that by this point my marriage had also broken down. With children to feed there was nothing I could do but get on with my job, however difficult it felt.

Eventually I managed to regulate my symptoms with hormone replacement therapy and found herbal remedies helpful. I became more aware of my diet and found ways to lift my mood and feel better.

One of these ways was talking about it all openly. I left my job and went to work for the housing sector in 2014, where I finally felt I could be honest. I didn’t have to pretend everything was fine when actually it wasn’t. The culture was totally different. Motivated by my own awful experiences, I partnered with the human resources team so we could roll out support to staff, especially for female health issues.

But it was at my current workplace, Access2Funding, a business support organisation of which I am now chief executive, where I feel I’ve really made a difference. Here, I have introduced an official menopause policy, so no one has to go through what I did. Instead they have the right to flexible working and to have an open conversation. We have a large number of women of a certain age among our workforce and I was keen to recognise their needs in the way that mine were not.

The response has been amazing. We’ve even had a number of male staff members step forward and say: “Thank you, this is brilliant because now I understand much more about what my menopausal wife is going through.”

It’s still rare to have a workplace menopause policy. We’ve got a long way to go as a society. But I’m happy to see how many more people are talking about these things today.

I’m now 58 and the worst of my menopause symptoms have stopped. There’s still the odd day when I have a hot flush and certainly don’t feel my best. But I feel relieved to have put most of it behind me.

Menopause comes to every female worker sooner or later. I only hope future generations of women won’t have to suffer in silence like I did.

As told to Rosa Silverman

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