Impact of early menopause on work, study and finances: Women’s experiences

For many women we spoke with, early menopause (EM) had a significant impact on work or study, as well as their finances.

Impact of EM on work or study

Most women were in paid employment before and during the process of being diagnosed with and seeking help for EM; a few were studying. Experiences of the impact of EM on employment or study depended on several factors: the extent of women’s symptoms, the amount of time they needed to take off work and study, their employment conditions, and the degree of support they received from employers or educational institutions.

Symptoms

Trying to work or study while experiencing EM symptoms was challenging for most women, particularly if they had not been taking HRT (see Taking hormone-based medications for early menopause: Women’s experiences and Non-hormone based medications for early menopause). Women described having to negotiate the temperature of their working environment with colleagues, challenges with dressing appropriately for work while still trying to accommodate hot flushes (see Self-management of symptoms of early menopause), coping with the impact of EM on mood, and trying to deal with the effects of fatigue or a ‘fuzzy brain.’ Ella began experiencing menopausal symptoms in Year 12 and recalled struggling with low mood and concentration: ‘I remember trying to study for the exams, and then having this fuzziness, and – because I was used to cramming the night before, and I couldn’t even cram.’

Theresa, who experienced EM following a risk-reducing bilateral oophorectomy, shared her experiences of how she managed hot flushes at work. 

Joanna felt her memory had been affected by cancer treatment and EM, and described the impact of this on her work as a ‘big change.’

Taking time off and returning to work

Women with medically-induced EM discussed their experiences of taking time off work or study or in some cases resign from their jobs. Time off was needed when women were unwell, for medical appointments or hospital stays, or to recover from medical treatment. For several, returning to work and having to deal with menopausal symptoms was a further challenge. As Yen-Yi explained, after finishing active cancer treatment, ‘the assumption is you’re through the worst part of it, you should be jumping for joy, you really should be celebrating – this is it, this is the end! But I think a lot of people don’t realise that there’s a very, very long tail to all this.’

Kate was working in a café when she was first diagnosed with breast cancer. She described the impact of both breast cancer and menopausal symptoms on her ability to work.

A few women who had experienced EM related to cancer or medical treatment described having to ‘scale back’ their work hours, or stop work entirely. Some had voluntarily withdrawn from the workforce for a period of time while a couple of others said they were ‘performance managed’ out of their roles or given no realistic option but to resign.

After breast cancer treatment, Linda had to resign because her employer would not allow her to work part-time. As a single mother, she needed to keep working so started her own business. 

Employment conditions

The nature of women’s jobs affected the impact of EM symptoms. For example, women who worked in hospitality or retail commented that hot flushes and fatigue could make ‘busy’ roles in which they were ‘on [their] feet all day’ very difficult, particularly if they could not easily take breaks.

Sonia recalled her experience of ‘working through’ early menopause in her hospitality job.

Women who worked as teachers or trainers or in service jobs involving interaction with others (e.g. customers or patients) described feeling self-conscious about hot flushes or having to remove clothing layers.

Louise worked in retail and found hot flushes ‘really embarrassing.’ She was grateful that she did not have to work full-time.

A university educator, Eden talked about feeling self-conscious taking layers off in winter in some settings but not in others.

Support from employers or educational institutions

The support women received from employers or educational institutions made a significant difference to their experiences of EM at work. Some women had flexible, accommodating managers (if employees) or lecturers (if students), who gave them time off when needed and were ‘understanding’ when women disclosed their diagnosis of EM. Access to sick leave or other support services helped women maintain jobs or stay enrolled in study courses.

During her experience of ovarian cancer and EM, Naomi appreciated the security and flexibility of her job in a family business.

Vicki struggled with menopausal symptoms and side-effects from HRT, as well as other health problems related to Turner Syndrome. She shared how she approached her studies so that she could complete her course.

Other women described encountering negative reactions from employers, lecturers or colleagues, including inflexibility, indifference, or insensitivity. Working in male-dominated environments or for male managers could be particularly challenging. As the only female executive in her company, Sylvia felt there was no tolerance for ‘weakness’ within the senior management team. She was moved into a part-time role against her wishes while away from work for cancer treatment and when Sylvia resisted this on her return, she was ‘put on performance management’, and eventually ‘terminated.’ Female co-workers could also be unsupportive, as Lydia found with a co-worker who drew attention to her hot flushes: ‘It was just such a silly thing, but it would always upset me and I’d say to her “I don’t understand why you comment on it, I actually don’t like it” – but she found it funny.’

Mary shared her experiences of working for a manager to whom she did not feel comfortable disclosing her diagnosis of EM.

Impact of EM on work: Emotional dimensions

For many women, the ability to keep working, complete their studies, or work in a supportive environment was very important. Women talked about the role of work in helping them feel a sense of ‘normalcy’ and acceptance. Jacqueline compared her two most recent workplaces: ‘I’ve gone from that kind of intense, where women’s problems were seen as women’s problems, to a much more forgiving, much more, it’s alright, you know. We’re all human, you know, it’s not the end of the world.’

After her second recurrence of breast cancer, Nancy decided to stop her language course. This limited her ability to work, which she found ‘very disappointing.’

Financial impacts

Financial costs related to EM may include costs of medical treatment, private health insurance, and lost income due to reduced work hours or becoming unemployed. For some women, particularly those who were single or who had experienced medically-induced EM, the financial impacts were significant and added to the stress of dealing with EM.

Maree said the financial impact of breast cancer and EM on her and her family had been ‘huge’.

For others, the financial impacts of EM were manageable because they received care in the public health system, were able to continue working throughout their experience of EM, or had financial support from a partner or family members.

Breast cancer and EM was not a ‘setback’ in financial terms for Eden and her family, but she recognised it might be different for women in other circumstances.

Further information:

Talking Points (Women)

Talking Points (Health Practitioners)

Other Resources

 

  • Webpage: Menopause and work (IMS Live – commentaries from International Menopause Society doctors on recently published research related to the impact of natural menopause and work)
  • Research project: Women, work and the menopause – a website reporting the findings of a study of over 800 women employed at Australian universities and their experience of work and natural menopause.