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When Dr Andrea Binks started to go into perimenopause, and sleeplessness, feelings of depression and anxiety arrived, her plan was to “power through”.

As a specialist anaesthetist with decades of experience, when told by her GP that the transition had started, Binks thought, “OK, whatever, I’m fine”.

It was only when her husband and best friend staged an intervention and persuaded Binks to revisit the GP, that she realised she was not.

Dr Andrea Binks, an anaesthetist, wants women not to feel they must remain silent about menopause symptoms at work.Credit: Wolter Peeters

“I had got to the stage where the only thing I looked forward to [after] getting out of bed in the morning was when I could go back to bed at night – and thinking, ‘I’m not going to sleep, anyway’,” she says.

For Binks, treatment and upping her exercise – running, CrossFit and yoga – made her feel like herself again. Talking openly about menopause was also helpful.

So much so, she wants to blow up the silence around menopause in the medical workplace, hoping open discussion and extra support will aid women at the peak of their careers remain working to capacity.

Binks surveyed 100 of her female colleagues and found they – quietly – experienced similar clusters of physical and mental symptoms, some of them confronting.

One woman wrote she had “insomnia and much more rage, anxiety, despair than I have ever felt.”

“We hear about hot flushes being the thing menopausal women get, but really that was a small part of it,” says Binks who, at 49, is right in the middle of the perimenopausal window before periods finally cease. “The mental health symptoms, ‘melancholy’ … really resonated with me.”

Her research echoes comments from 700 Australian working women surveyed by the consultancy Circle In, which found four out of five respondents had been affected at work by symptoms of menopause, but 70 per cent do not feel comfortable talking to their manager about it.

Co-founder Jodi Geddes said that despite Naomi Watts, Michelle Obama, Gwyneth Paltrow and Sophie, the Duchess of Edinburgh and former Countess of Wessex, talking about it, “there is still a baffling taboo about menopause – with resources and support a scarcity for both employees and managers”.

“There is a culture of ignorance and isolation around menopause in the workplace and as something that impacts workforce participation – this needs to change.”

Nearly half of Circle In’s respondents said they “considered retiring or taking a break from work due to severe menopause symptoms”. This fits with Binks’ survey, in which some said they were “having to make the difficult decision to transition away from leadership roles”.

On Wednesday, the Mayo Clinic reported that the US economy was losing $26 billion a year due to menopause symptoms, which it said was “an opportunity to make the workplace environment more supportive for women going through this universal life stage.”

Actor Naomi Watts has started a beauty and wellness brand whose products are for menopausal women,. Credit: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Stripes/Amyris

In Australia, five unions and the workplace law firm Maurice Blackburn are campaigning for menopause leave in enterprise agreements. Symptoms cost women $17 billion in lost earnings and super, according Australian Institute of Superannuation Trustees.

Some private sector workplaces, including drinks manufacturer Diageo, have introduced trained menopause support advocates and given employees access to counselling and apps designed to aid the transition.

Others, including Future Super, underwear maker Modibodi, Sustainability Victoria and the Victorian Women’s Trust have introduced paid menstrual and menopause leave.

Associate Professor Elizabeth Hill, deputy director of the Gender Equality in Working Life Research Initiative, said a “massive global conversation” had started about menopause and work because evidence shows it is impacting the labour market.

If you get a lot of hot flushes, one an hour or every half hour, you go, ‘Actually, it feels like I’m being incinerated’.

“Menopausal workers are reducing their hours, leaving management roles and moving to lower-paid roles, or retiring early, as a result of symptoms or lack of support provided in the workplace,” Hill said. “Here, we see the intersection of ageism and sexism.”

Hill hopes to study and measure the impact of menopause and menstrual leave policies.

Binks and other advocates argue menopause is a workplace wellbeing issue. If more is not done to help women to stay at work, the retirement age gap of 7.4 years between men and women will remain, women’s prospects for longer-term economic security will not improve and workplaces will lose valuable talent, they say.

Royal Melbourne Hospital anaesthetist Dr Janette Wright, 50, would like to see personalised support. She went into menopause early due to aggressive treatment for breast cancer, at age 44, having not been informed about the potential symptoms.

Dr Janette Wright went into menopause early due to cancer treatment and says individualised supports would help women with strong symptoms.Credit: Wayne Taylor

“It [menopause symptoms] never really resonated with me as a major issue. But especially if you get a lot of hot flushes, one an hour or every half hour, you go, ‘Actually, it feels like I’m being incinerated’,” she said.

“I’m a consultant, in that middle-management period of my life where you do want to step up: and we’re in a time when we want women to step up, and we want to achieve parity and equity.

“Meanwhile, you’ve got these physiological symptoms that muck up your sleep patterns and can make you a little bit angry.”

Wright, who runs individualised, post-maternity leave programs, says customised menopause support would help women keep working to their potential.

English research showed that 45 per cent working women dealing with menopausal symptoms say it causes them to consider retiring early or taking work breaks.

Binks will run three menopause events at the Australian and New Zealand College of Anaesthetists’ 2023 scientific meeting in May.

“I know from personal experience that people talking about it means others will feel like they’re not alone,” Binks said.

“So many people think, ‘It’s just me, I’m going crazy’ … but allowing people to have the discussion in the workplace will mean they feel more able to ask for the support they need.”

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