Around this time last year, Channel 4 aired an important documentary. Davina McCall: Sex, Myths and the Menopause lifted the lid on a topic that had previously be shrouded in stigma and misinformation, dispelling myths around the menopause, its symptoms and its treatments.
It’s true that speaking about the menopause has historically been something of a taboo. Despite an estimated thirteen million people going through the menopause at any one time in the UK, the subject only made it onto the school curriculum in 2019. A survey undertaken in the US found that nearly a third of women didn’t seek information about the menopause before they experienced it, and three years ago, a seminal study from Health and Her found that only 28% of women were likely to speak to their partner about the menopause.
Today, this is changing. As part of a long overdue focus on women’s health – which can be felt across healthcare, government legislation, workplace policy and the availability of consumer goods – more and more people are speaking openly about the menopause. Alongside Davina McCall, household names such as Gwyneth Paltrow have shared their experiences, and just this week, menopause-focused telehealth startup Evernow secured $28.5m of funding from celebrity backers including Cameron Diaz and Drew Barrymore.
However, one area that demands significantly greater focus is menopause in the workplace. In the UK alone, more than 14 million workdays – representing £1.8bn – are lost to the economy every year as a direct result of menopause symptoms. Moreover, research has shown that too many women are choosing to step backwards, step sideways or even permanently leave their jobs when they go through the menopause, contributing to a lack of women in senior positions. Crucially, people are suffering in silence: the 2019 Health and Her study found that less than 1% of respondents were likely to speak with their employer about the menopause. One thing is clear – for any business serious about supporting their staff, driving up diversity and closing their gender pay gap, menopause must be a critical area of focus.
In the UK alone, more than 14 million workdays – representing £1.8bn – are lost to the economy every year as a direct result of menopause symptoms.
“Women are now working later into their life, and in more senior positions – but most workplaces aren’t fit to support people going through the menopause,” said Lauren Chiren, founder and CEO at Women of a Certain Stage. Lauren’s organisation partners with employers globally, to successfully navigate menopause through workplace training, coaching and Menopause Champion and Coach certifications.
There is an obvious moral case for supporting menopause-age colleagues – but it is also a commercial imperative. According to a 2019 survey from Bupa and CIPD, nearly one million women have left the UK workforce because of the menopause. Not only is replacing talent a highly expensive process, but most exiting employees of menopause-age take with them decades of skills, knowledge and experience.
“We’re losing women hand over fist and its costing companies a small fortune”
“We’re losing women hand over fist and its costing companies a small fortune,” explained Lauren, “and there are also some serious reputational risks.” Indeed, the number of UK employee tribunals cases centring on menopause has been on the rise in the past few years – representing a growing willingness to challenge employers who do not provide sufficient support.
So what can businesses do?
Lauren suggests that companies begin by looking at the entire employee journey. “Is inclusive language being used in the job spec? Is menopause being mentioned as part of mandatory onboarding training? Is there a flag in the HR system which can pick up menopause symptoms? Is menopause covered in your absence policy? There are small changes that can be made to existing policies which can have a really valuable impact.”
Perhaps most fundamentally, companies must foster an environment in which talking about the menopause and its symptoms is encouraged.
I caught up with Emma Alexander, Managing Director at Accessorize, who shared with me her experiences of discussing the topic in a previous role. After reaching the menopause early, aged 45, Emma suffered from mood swings, brain fog and exhaustion. “I was an emotional wreck,” she explained, “I was eating well, training lots and keeping in good health but there would be days where I’d put down the phone and immediately burst into tears. I didn’t know what was going on.” After seeking professional help, it became clear that the cause of her symptoms was early menopause.
“Many wouldn’t have had the financial means to get private help, so I felt it was crucial that they understand the signs of the menopause – especially as so many women go to the doctors with symptoms and are turned away with antidepressants.”
“At that point I had 275 people – predominantly women – working for me, and I knew it was important to share what I had gone through,” she told me earlier this week. “Many wouldn’t have had the financial means to get private help, so I felt it was crucial that they understand the signs of the menopause – especially as so many women go to the doctors with symptoms and are turned away with antidepressants.”
Emma tells me that she gave a series of presentations to her team and the entire company on the menopause, health and wellbeing, including a Q&A with expert Amanda Thebe. “I wanted to equip people with information on what the symptoms are, how to deal with them in a resilient way and why general wellness is key. The menopause can be so destabilising and I wanted people to know how to support their colleagues and those at home. The response was fantastic – people loved how open and honest I was, they got to know me in a more open and transparent way.”
In the consumer-facing sector and beyond, we’re seeing forward-thinking businesses tabling the menopause as a critical topic. Given that 86% of those going through the menopause suffer from mental health issues, it makes sense to integrate the subject into conversations around wellbeing. Days like International Women’s Day and World Menopause Day provide opportunities to share information and to encourage people to share their experiences. Lauren suggests creating groups where those who are experiencing – or will experience – the menopause come together to discuss what works for them in a safe and non-judgmental space. Workplace training is also critical, so line managers know what to expect from their colleagues and are equipped with the tools to help.
Going through the menopause can be an isolating journey for women. But by championing role models like Emma and putting clear policies in place, businesses can create workplaces where women feel supported and free to speak openly. If this is something you’re embracing in your organisation, then I’d love to hear from you.
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