By the time she was in her late thirties, Lauren Chiren was a senior executive of a global financial services firm, overseeing male-dominated teams. Almost overnight, her confidence levels plummeted - unbeknown to her, she was going through the symptoms of early menopause.
“I stopped sleeping and was worrying about my performance. I was forgetting simple words like ‘plan’ even though a lot of my job was about planning,” she said.
After months off work, she left altogether. “I thought I had early dementia and pictured myself in a home while someone else brought up my son.”
Like Lauren, countless others are going through the same sort of menopause symptoms every day – often with little support at work. Fewer than 5% of UK businesses offer a dedicated menopause policy while 59% of people experiencing menopausal symptoms say it negatively affects their work. Menopause can affect confidence, ambition, and career progression, yet those issues are seldom talked about.
Market researcher Lesley Salem, who set up Over the Bloody Moon as a resource for those in perimenopause, said: “For management, it’s a sign of weakness and for colleagues, it’s about losing your peak.” With so few workplaces having a menopause policy, yet alone awareness-building initiatives, conversations that are desperately needed are just not happening.
“Unless we start talking about menopause at work, we are going to keep on seeing women in their forties and fifties disappearing in droves,” Lesley added.
With 3.5 million women over 50 currently in employment, menopausal women form the fastest-growing workplace demographic in the UK. Yet according to menopause specialist Dr Louise Newson, a third of people haven’t got a clue what’s happening to them.
“Many never link symptoms such as brain fog, anxiety, and mental exhaustion and menopause,” she said; something backed by a recent survey by Gen-M, which shows a worrying 90% of those at the peak of their career felt unprepared for perimenopause, while only one in five felt their workplace was menopause savvy.
Dinah Tobias left her corporate role after her menopause symptoms became difficult to manage. The once prize-winning public speaker said she became introverted, tearful and literally lost for words while her symptoms took hold. “No woman wants to say: ‘I’m broken, my vocab has gone, and I’m not sleeping’ especially as a leader. So instead, we see them leaving,” said Dinah, who now supports women in business through menopause.
“We see [our members] pass on promotions, feeling unable to cope. Companies end up wondering why, if they’ve invested in that person, they’ve been let down and it just compounds the whole thing.”
Thankfully, things are improving. Menopause awareness speaker Clare Sheppard feels social media has enabled people to feel more confident in speaking out. Menopause workplace trainer Deborah Garlick of Henpicked, has never been busier and is seeing a big push by workplaces to recognise menopause under widening diversity and inclusion strategies.
Yet in some cases, there’s a lot more to be done. Meera Bhogal, who runs groups for Asian women, said: “It’s seen as a white middle-class women’s disorder”, referencing the cultural taboos that inhibit those from Asian backgrounds from speaking about periods, fertility and menopause. In fact, there’s not even a direct translation for the word menopause in Urdu or Punjabi. TV doctor and women’s health specialist, Dr Nighat Arif says Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic women are being left out of the conversation when it comes to the UK’s biggest employers, the NHS.
“Although women make up 77% of the NHS. The average working age is 43, right from the care sector to senior levels. When they hit their perimenopause and menopause – one in 10 of them leave.” she said, adding: “Forty per cent of these women are from ethnic minorities. There’s nothing for them, no research, and nothing they see about menopause features non-white women yet it’s ethnic minority women driving the NHS.”
Part of the answer might be, then to legislate so menopause policies become mandatory at work. This is the aim of the Labour Party MP Dawn Butler who wants larger companies to adhere to policies covering everything from flexible working to risk assessments.
“It can be such a drastic change to a woman's life, you can end up losing your self-confidence, the more flexible employers can be, the more it will help women reach their potential," she said.
Conservative MP Rachel McClean, who has campaigned prolifically in parliament for the recognition of menopause after her own symptoms went undiagnosed for months, feels this isn’t the sole answer. Pointing out concerns around the lack of menopause training for GPs, she thinks this needs to be tackled first. “The health system has let women down. This has to change before we legislate anything in the workplace,” she said.
Another key part of the solution is employers going through steps to become more inclusive for those going through menopause.
At Housing 21, which run not-for-profit care homes, more than 40% of staff are women aged 50+. The company now has a menopause policy, delivers training and guidance to staff, and has visiting experts including doctors and psychotherapists to talk about symptoms as well as 12 workplace menovists. Menovists are men and women from the company who actively talk about menopause in the workplace, and offer support. One of them is legal counsel, Heidi Salter, who underwent a drastic total hysterectomy three years ago. “Knowing it’s taken seriously, and understanding that menopause can affect women of any age, really helped,” she said.
Despite being an almost wholly male and under thirties workplace, online car marketplace Autotrader is embracing menopause. It offers online chat rooms, coffee mornings, and access to private physical and mental health care, as well flexible working. With just 11% of staff being women in the 45-55 age range, Operations Manager Jenny Willetts said: “It’s up to all of us to provide the education and remove that stigma and make things easier when it comes to asking for help and supporting employees.”
Southeastern Trains also has a majority male workforce, and wants to ensure people of all genders are supported. Area Manager Natalie Leister, said: "People were experiencing symptoms, struggling from a lack of knowledge, and it was impacting home lives and stress levels.” After running a series of awareness sessions and introducing adjustment and flexibilities, she said not only have staff found their working lives improved, but their home lives have too. Being more menopause-friendly means they’re also in position to retain their female staff and attract others.
Nearly 60% of Leicestershire County Council’s staff are women over 45. It hosts separate training events every few months for staff and managers, and produced a Menopause in Minutes video to help busy managers. Staff get support seminars and drop-in chats, as well as chances to speak with health advisors in person. It is also one of the few employers to offer a tailored exercise programme specifically around menopause. It found that, whereas before, no-one would talk about menopause, now lots of conversations are being had.
Deborah Garlick from Henpicked helps hundreds of employers, and feels positive change is afoot.
“Inspirational employers are not waiting for menopause policies and support to be made law. They’re making change happen now because it’s simply the right thing to do for the wellbeing of their colleagues, diversity and inclusion, and equality.”
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