The Importance of the M Word

The Times recently published an article saying that the majority of British businesses are failing to deal with menopause in the workplace. According to the research conducted by the law firm Irwin Mitchell just one in five employers considers menopausal symptoms during performance reviews of female staff, while only a quarter have a menopause policy at all.

The study of HR Leaders revealed that most companies lack training for managers in this area, and they’re not confident that their female employees can talk freely about menopause. Irwin Mitchell said that the lack of policy action will make it harder for businesses to attract new employees, and warns that it could result in discrimination claims in the future. In the past two to three years there has been a significant rise in the number of employment tribunals where menopause is mentioned.

It’s an interesting topic. I want to open this up by saying that I think I might be suffering from a little bit of imposter syndrome because the menopause is not an area that I’ve explored much. I’m a 40-year-old guy. I have very little experience in menopause. So Katie Taylor, my interviewee came in to enlighten me and hopefully my readers. I’ve also said that if I get any terminology wrong, Katie should put me right.

We started off with me asking Katie to tell me a little more about herself and her story and what led to the creation of her organisation Latte Lounge.

‘I’m 53-years-old now. But 10 years ago, from the age of 43-47, I suffered a host of very different debilitating symptoms. I’m a mom of four kids, but I was always very capable. I was working in marketing for a charity, I loved my job, I had a great supportive husband, great kids, a lovely network of supportive friends. There was no reason for me to be unhappy in my life. And yet, over this four-year period, I started feeling very depressed and teary, I suffered from anxiety, I suffered from aching joints, heart palpitations and a terrible brain fog where I just felt like I was walking in sticky treacle and forgetting words. It was a strange out of body experience where I just didn’t feel connected with the outside world and my own emotions.

I kept going back and forth to various GPs and doctors and specialists, and every time they said I was suffering from depression and I was offered antidepressants. I’m a doctor’s daughter; my father is a breast cancer professor, so I’ve been brought up to sort of question and analyse things. I’ve seen myself as a fairly well-educated woman. I kept saying to the doctors, “Look, there is no reason for me being depressed, I don’t believe this is right.”

Eventually, I just couldn’t cope at work. I was staring at budgets, which just looked like a foreign language to me. I was surviving on about two hours of sleep a night because I also have insomnia. I didn’t have hot flashes and I was still having periods. So there was no point when I went to any of these doctors, where they said this was anything to do with my hormones. I eventually left my job because I just couldn’t function and I became a shell of a woman. I spent most of my days sleeping on the couch, I suffered from extreme exhaustion, and I thought I was going mad.

As well as being sent to psychiatrists, I went to see someone that specialised in early-onset dementia, which was very, very frightening. Eventually, it was my father after four years of all this, when I was about 47, who said, “Look, I’m convinced this is your hormones.” He sent me to see a gynaecologist who he worked with, who specialised in menopause. Within half an hour of her discussing my symptoms, she said, “Well, this is classic perimenopause.” And to me, this was a light bulb moment.

I’d never heard of the word perimenopause. She explained it was because my oestrogen levels were on the floor and that we have oestrogen receptors all over our body, and that’s why I was suffering from all these different symptoms. She prescribed hormone replacement therapy for me, which replaces your natural hormones. A lot of people know it as HRT, and within about three to four weeks, I felt like my old self, a new woman.

I felt very angry at my four years of lost life, and that I’d have to give up my much-loved job, and that night of my diagnosis, I came home and sat on my bed crying with relief that I wasn’t going mad, but also I was sort of frustrated that this had happened. So I turned to Facebook to see if there was anyone else talking about this, and I couldn’t find any groups that were talking about women’s health issues over the age of 40. So I set up the group, and I called it the Latte Lounge because I wanted it to feel like a sort of coffee shop, an online coffee shop where women would come and talk to their friends, or people online that didn’t know about all things mid-life menopause. That’s how the Facebook group started. Within 24 hours, I had a thousand member requests and I realised I was not alone. This is happening to lots of other women.

I thought I needed to build a website and put together a medical advisory team who could really support, inform and signpost these women with all their questions about perimenopause and menopause, and also all their other mid-life health and well-being issues that they came to us to talk about.’

It sounds like an incredibly challenging and difficult period. Now that Katie works with a lot of individuals and organisations, I wondered what are the top challenges she’s seeing employers facing when supporting people at work experiencing menopause?

‘I’ll give you some statistics that will put everything into perspective. Menopausal women are now the fastest-growing segment of the workforce. It’s estimated that around 1 in 6 people in employment is a woman over 50. Menopause and perimenopause are affecting women in the workplace to the point that 14 million working days are lost in the UK because of menopause and perimenopause. 6 in 10 menopausal women say it has a negative impact on their work, and research has shown that 1 in 5 women have left their job as I did because of it. Also like me, on average, women are visiting their doctors anywhere from 3 up to 10 to a dozen times, to speak about their symptoms.

This obviously results in additional sick leave from work and causes a lot of anxiety and stress, not just in the workplace, but at home. So it’s really, really important for businesses to address this, and that’s why I’m very passionate about supporting employers and people going through menopause in the workplace. So if there are businesses looking for guidance on how to increase awareness in the workplace, we always say a good way to start is to break down the taboos.

You’re saying you’re a 40-year-old man and you have this impostor syndrome, but there’s no reason why you should know about this and there lies the problem. Menopause and perimenopause are never taught at school. We were taught about giving birth or preventing pregnancy, and then you would sort of hear nothing. You might hear about menopause, but boys, young boys and children, it wouldn’t be of interest.

We’ve grown up with no knowledge of this life stage between 40 and 50. Add to that the fact that there is no mandatory menopause training at medical school, and you’ve got doctors coming out of medical school with almost zero knowledge themselves. The only thing really that they’ve been taught is that menopause is hot flashes and a year since your last period, but nobody talks about the 10 years before when your hormone levels fluctuate or plummet and they can cause these symptoms.

You’re up against so much already. So empowering businesses to improve employee retention is a win-win for everyone. It will remove barriers to women progressing in their careers. It will reduce sickness levels and employment tribunals because women are being discriminated against at work because of their symptoms. It will boost productivity and it’ll foster a more inclusive and open workplace culture, making women feel happier and more engaged at work.

There are lots of ways we suggest to employers that they can support women. We can help with things like awareness events, where you might do some impersonal virtual panels or small group discussions, and what that does is break down the taboos. It informs and educates not just employers, but the employees, and hopefully their wider families too. We can support policy development, menopause guidance, providing tool kits, and things like menopause resources. We provide menopause for managers, tailored information and training sessions for line managers. We can help internal comms support as well roll out policies and resources. There are lots of things you can do.’

I am hearing a good place to start is raising awareness. Quite often I talk to my clients about how we embed diversity and inclusion into the organisation, so it’s a part of the furniture, so to speak. I asked Katie, ‘Is there anything that employers should be doing to kind of get more support into the way that they work, their processes and systems and policies, and that kind of thing?’

‘It’s a good thing to have a policy, and not because it’s a tick box thing, but so when employees join an organisation and existing employees know what support there is in place. We always suggest having menopause ambassadors and dedicated personnel who people know they can go to discuss these things. Some employers would be happier to suggest some resources and support groups, perhaps off-site, so we do a lot of business-to-business support where we will do a group, Zoom sessions say where we will take a group of women from an organisation and support them with things like how to recognise your symptoms, how to speak to your doctor, how to speak to your employer, how to ask for perhaps changes in your working environment.

It could depend on what women’s individual symptoms are. If they are experiencing hot flashes, for example, maybe having a fan at the desk, sitting by a window, having shorter meetings, with toilet breaks where they can cool down, especially if the brain fog is setting in. So those kinds of things.

If they wear certain uniforms for work which are uncomfortable, perhaps changing uniforms, or working from home and flexible working. When you’re suffering from insomnia, like I was, sometimes it’s incredibly hard to drag yourself into work when you’ve had very little sleep.’

If people are taking time off to go to medical appointments and things like that, the employer needs to make sure that somebody isn’t detrimentally affected by that. So not expecting employees to use holiday time to go to those appointments, making sure that their performance management at work is not affected just because they’ve had to take time off to go to various appointments.

Katie agreed. ‘I think a good employer will understand that, and it’s a wider issue and it’s not just women’s health, it’s men’s health as well. I’ve got a 25-year-old daughter who is absolutely terrified of asking for time off, she’s been putting off a doctor’s appointment now for probably about a month. Women suffer from all sorts of issues. I, unfortunately, suffered from a miscarriage in my very first job. Instead of having some time off to deal with that, I dragged myself into work straight away the next day.

I think times have changed now, that was probably over 25 years ago, but I think having conversations where it’s okay to take some time off to go and see a doctor is important. If you get in there ahead of the game as employers and show support and understanding about perimenopause and menopause from day one, hopefully, they won’t need time off because they’ll be able to get sorted.

This is why I do what I do. I don’t want anyone to spend four years looking for answers. I could have actually been completely sorted on day one, had my doctor and had my employer known what was going on.’

I asked Katie, ‘When employers get it right, and they’re supporting their people experiencing menopause in the right way, what do they stand to gain and benefit from being such a supportive employer?’

‘I think, happiness. You’re improving your employee retention and you’re going to keep key talents. I mean, we’re talking about women from their 40s, maybe up until 60. I think the peak between 45-55 is when things seem to be the worst. And this is core talent. These are people who have had possibly 25, or 30 years of experience, and to suddenly lose them when they are at the peak of their careers is crazy. If you can improve employee retention and help women progress up their careers in the way that they should, you’re reducing sickness levels, there’s no risk of tribunals, and you’re just, as I said, fostering a happier, more engaged workforce. It’s a win-win for everyone. Every time you lose key talent, you’ve got that expense of having to recruit someone new and train them up again, it’s a no-brainer, in my opinion.’

I then asked Katie the question I ask everybody when they come on this show, ‘What does inclusive growth mean to you?’

‘I have to talk about the menopause, so it’s breaking down the taboos, making it okay to talk about this in the workplace, and supporting women wholeheartedly to stay in their jobs. I’ve been campaigning now for six years with a colleague called Diane Danzebrink who set up the Make Menopause Matter petition. We’ve been going back and forward to Parliament asking for three key aims. One of them is for all workplaces to have a menopause policy in place, to have mandatory menopause training for all medics and for it to be on the school curriculum. In England, it is on the school curriculum now, which is fantastic.

But if I could sort of say one thing in terms of inclusive growth it is, if we could encourage every employer to start with awareness and just signing up to the idea of supporting their talent, then I think you’ve got a fantastic employer there and women will stay.

I must just say that menopause doesn’t obviously just affect women, there’s the whole trans community as well, and I interviewed a brilliant lady called Tania Glyde who set up a forum called Trans Menopause. She said to start using the word people more than women, so everybody who’s affected by menopause doesn’t feel excluded, because we want everyone just to get the right support.’

Katie has made a really good point which I hadn’t considered at all and that’s something that should be considered by employers in the language that they use in any policy. It’s like when I was working at Deloitte and I was reviewing our parental policies, we rewrote our policies and we moved away from language like mothers and fathers to parents because recognising that parents come in all shapes and sizes, and families come in all shapes and sizes means language is important. This has been a very educational conversation for me.

‘I’m learning all the time as well, and I think what’s important is that no one should be embarrassed. Bringing men into the conversation is absolutely vital because there are so many male employers, but they are our partners and our sons too. I’ve got three young boys who now know more about menopause than most people, and I’m proud of them. I think their future partners will be delighted that they are fully aware. I just think the more we talk about it, the more we break down these taboos, the more we will retain this key talent, as I said, and a happy, inclusive culture at work.’

It’s an important point that we need to normalise the conversation, like other topics of diversity and inclusion within the workplace. Everybody needs to be part of the conversation, particularly those that are holding power and privilege within an organisation because they really do affect the strategy and direction and culture of an organisation. Introducing a policy can start to hard wire it into the organisation, and that’s probably a good place for organisations to start. So many organisations that I talk to haven’t even done that, so just focusing on those two things is probably a good start.

To find out more about perimenopause and menopause visit the Latte Lounge website. If you’re suffering from symptoms yourself, there is a free downloadable Symptom Checklist that can be taken to the doctor’s appointment to frame the discussion. There are different resources to support employers with writing policies or creating awareness events. You can also email Katie Taylor direct at [email protected] and I’m she’ll be happy to discuss further any support needed.

The Importance of the M Word - Mildon