Pictured: Joscelyn Leggett, 52, who was working in sales with her husband Mike when, in her late 40s, she began to suffer from ‘black’ depressions
The onset of Teresa Bagnall’s menopause signalled a sudden and catastrophic change in both her personality and appearance.
‘I was in my mid-40s when it hit me like a bus,’ she says. ‘I had these awful night sweats. The bed would be continuously wringing wet and I’d have to get up and change the sheets. One night I woke up drenched 11 times.
‘During the day I had such terrible hot flushes I started to wear a sweatband round my head, but it got soaked.
‘My hair was perpetually lank and wet and my clothes were saturated. It was embarrassing and degrading. I felt unclean.
‘I’m still exhausted; mentally and physically drained. I used to be immaculately presented: perfect make-up, not a hair out of place.
‘I’m tall — 5 ft 10 in — and I was always a size 12, but I have ballooned to a size 20 and I feel repulsive.
‘The old Teresa was jolly, kind and full of life. Now I’ve lost all my self-confidence and I hardly ever go out. My husband is so understanding. He says: “I know the old Teresa is in there somewhere and one day she’ll come back.” But some days I wonder if she ever will.’
So profound was the impact of her symptoms that Teresa, 46, from Leicester, found her job as a health care support worker in an NHS hospital ward for the elderly untenable.
To her abiding regret, the work she once did with such proficiency became a daily challenge she could no longer face, her exhaustion compounded by the stifling heat on the ward.
‘My uniform was thick: non-breathable black trousers, a heavy poly-cotton top and stout shoes. The ward was so hot and airless even patients were saying they felt faint. The radiators couldn’t be turned down as they were controlled from a central point off the premises. It was like working under a red-hot sun with no fresh air. In my breaks I’d sit in my car with the air-conditioning on full.
‘I was in charge of supplies — needles, bandages, plasters, pads — and as my mind was so fogged with fatigue and the heat, I worried I wasn’t doing things right.
‘I’d check everything over and over again. I never dared close my eyes at work as I knew I’d fall into a deep sleep.’
Sensibly in the circumstances — knowing, too, that many patients had also complained about the stifling heat — Teresa opened the windows. ‘But as they were covered in mesh for the protection of the patients, many of whom had dementia, it didn’t make much difference,’ she recalls.
Then, to her distress, she was reprimanded. ‘The matron called me in and said a “serious complaint” had been made against me, apparently by a member of the administrative staff, that I kept opening the windows.
‘I felt myself flush. I said, “Yes, it’s because I’m hot,” and the (male) matron replied: “Some people are cold.” I pointed out that those who were cold could put on extra layers, but I couldn’t wear anything less.
‘The matron asked if there was a reason why I was hot and I said, “Yes, I’m going through the menopause”. He then asked, “Should you really be here then, in this job?” and I felt my mouth drop open. I was so disheartened that I burst out crying.’
At a subsequent meeting Teresa was told she was ‘unsuitable’ for the role. As it was a new post and she was still on a probationary period, she left without a challenge.
Besides, depleted and worn out, she had no energy to contest it.
Today Teresa, mum to two sons aged 26 and 23, and married to her second husband Carl, 53, a delivery driver, is a temporary worker on the NHS staff bank.
Unable to manage a full-time job — she still endures severe menopause-related depression, although HRT has helped — she now works just two days a week.
Teresa’s experience is far from rare. While the toll the menopause takes on women’s personal lives is well documented, research has, until now, failed to uncover the full force of its impact on the UK workforce and economy.
Lorraine Hegarty (pictured), 54, was the archetypal busy, stressed working mother when, 12 years ago, she began to suffer the incapacitating effects of an early menopause, brought on by the hysterectomy she’d had aged 30
So the publication a fortnight ago of a review commissioned by the Department for Education and carried out by the University of Leicester, which collated 26 years of research into the menopause, broke new ground.
It highlighted the gaps in understanding about the true cost of the menopause to mid-life women at work — there are estimated to be 4.3 million over 50 in employment, and the figure is rising. It found they often feel too afraid to admit to problems for fear of losing their jobs.
It also noted the paucity of support and suggested Government-funded research into alleviation and management of symptoms would ease the burden on women and the economy.
A separate survey last week revealed that as many as 8 million mid-life women struggle with symptoms that affect their work. Of 1,000 women questioned by Maryon Stewart, author, campaigner and expert in women’s hormone health, 84 per cent reported symptoms that reduced their productivity at work.
The survey extrapolated that the true cost to women’s professional lives — as they struggle with night sweats, sleep deprivation and muddled thinking — equates to a loss of 280 million productive work days. So although middle-aged women have more freedom, work longer and have greater disposable income than previous generations, the stark fact remains that lack of knowledge and effective treatment is denying them necessary help.
The severity of the problem has now been recognised by Parliament and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Women’s Health has pledged to debate the menopause.
So what else can be done? For Dr Sally Hope, who has long fought for parity between the sexes in the workplace, the answer is not to capitulate — or ask for time off — but to find effective solutions.
Dr Hope, 60, who represented the Royal College of GPs on the National Institute for Clinical Excellence guideline group on the menopause in 2015, says, ‘If we are aware, we can treat women with tolerance and sensitivity rather than ridicule and dismissiveness.
‘Often the menopause coincides with a dire time in women’s lives when they’re already spinning six plates in the air: they’ve got stroppy teenage children, elderly dependent parents and in-laws, a husband having a mid-life meltdown and they’re working full-time.
‘Understanding and empathy from higher management makes all the difference: decent ventilation, allowing staff to have fans on their desks and, if they have a uniform, to wear a lighter one;