Here is a story about how menopause unraveled a successful executive and caused havoc in her workplace.
Jill was a director in a high-tech company when I met her. She arrived in casual clothes: a brown turtleneck sweater draped loosely over slightly baggy trousers.
Her face was animated but a bit puffy; her eyes were bright, but with dark rings under them. Her upper body and arms moved when she spoke, making her appear a vital woman. Her lower body, however, barely moved. Since the start of perimenopause, she had put on weight, which seemed to "hover" around her middle. Her frustration with diets had transformed to resignation as she bought more loose-fitting clothes in sizes larger than before. Nonetheless, she was visibly uncomfortable in her body.
"I feel like a lump," she said, tugging at the neck of her sweater. "By 3:00 in the afternoon, I feel a huge wave of exhaustion. No amount of coffee picks me up, yet I wake up in the middle each night ready to run a marathon!"
Perspiration dotted her forehead. She reached into a trouser pocket for the pack of Kleenex she used to mop her brow. Extreme emotion, hot weather, spicy food and even exercise triggered the heat.
"It's particularly embarrassing at work when I'm in meetings and the heat hits. It's hard to concentrate on work when your body betrays you like this."
I pondered the dilemma and felt sorry for this woman who felt shame when compassion was due. She continued to list her inadequacies.
"I know I haven't been very nice to my employees, either. Yesterday, for example, my team had its weekly meeting. Three of them were slightly unprepared, and I got really edgy. Instead of finding out what people needed to get the work done, I bit their heads off! I just couldn't control myself. I went for the detail and embarrassed two of them in front of the others. At the time, I admit I even enjoyed berating them. They have no reason to be so casual when I work so hard despite my fatigue!"
"So now everyone is humiliated?" I asked.
Jill nodded, accepting that, for the first time in her career, she had hit the wall. The woman who in previous times won "boss of the year" awards was now the picture of her own worst nightmare. She had lost her popularity with employees, who now avoided her.
It is remarkable how people "share" their illnesses at work. Although menopause is clearly not contagious, it is hard to deny it affects more people in the workplace than those whose estrogen is falling.
More than half of the American population goes through menopause. If women make up 47 percent of the workforce, then hundreds of millions of workers deal with it. Mature working women struggle with its side-effects daily, grappling with sleep deprivation, memory loss, and fluctuations in body temperature, moods and energy levels. Yet it remains taboo - another censured subject in organizational life.
Most working women are in their 40s and 50s, and many are finally hitting their stride professionally. Demographic analysis shows that working women still only command a fraction of the compensation of their male counterparts, explained in part by the discontinuities of women's work/life. Some of us stop working or work part-time when our children are younger, only to compete with men who continued working (and never carried babies.) So, when we hit our 40s and 50s, we are ready to get our fair share. And we get hot flashes!
Let's get back to Jill. Shortly before she called me, her boss, a man in his 50s, gave her a performance appraisal in which he gave her feedback. Though her department had hit all of its targets, she scored much lower on the annual 360-degree feedback tool in which each manager was evaluated by his or her boss, peers and subordinates. She was criticized for her short temper, inability to remember detail and decreasing capacity to motivate others. As such, her overall rating (and commensurate compensation) would drop this year.
Her boss talked to her about these issues. She admitted she hadn't been herself, but did not admit that sleep deprivation, low energy and mood swings were to blame. He offered the opportunity to work with an "executive coach" to sort out her "style issues, " so I got the call.
The intervention was, as usual, both clinical and organizational. First, the clinical aspect. We began a short series of acupuncture treatments, identifying the need to tonify the Kidney while draining dampness. She took an herbal formula, called "Women's Journey" at a low dosage, but made sure to take one dose just before bedtime. These treatments had an almost immediate effect on the frequency and intensity of hot flashes at night. The result was a happier, more clearly thinking Jill, who slept through most nights. We also altered her diet by reducing the amount of wheat, certain types of dairy and other foods that previously congested her. I gave her a copy of Christine Northrup's book, The Wisdom of Menopause, which she read with gusto. This helped her to validate her feelings and understand the messages her hormones were giving.
As her mind cleared, we devised a plan by which she addressed her need to restore her equanimity and improve relationships with her employees. After reviewing the company's "work/life balance" policies, we built a plan in which Jill worked from home on Fridays, and used her time off more wisely. We planned four four-day weekends, one per season, during which Jill would intentionally replenish. Last year, she spent one weekend at the beach; one at home; one at a conference; and one in the mountains. These have become predictable, peaceful friends in her hectic life.
After restoring better balance, she also "came out" to her boss about being menopausal. He was grateful for her honesty and willingness to take charge of her health and her situation with her subordinates. He was a bit embarrassed that he hadn't known or suspected the cause of her problems, and promised to be more aware of the issues of mature female employees in the future.
Last week, his office called again. There was an edgy, yet very talented vice president of marketing. Did I have any time...?
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