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How mental health discussions evolved into menopause in the workplace support at Aster Group…

Menopause campaigns don’t always start life as such. And really, it doesn’t matter how they get underway, as long as they do.

Here, Julie Cridland, employee experience lead at Aster Group, explains how they got the conversations started and how they’ve evolved. 

Our menopause journey didn’t start out as a menopause journey. Back in 2018, we were largely focussed on improving poor mental health and had signed the Time to Change pledge.  This set out our commitment to change the way we think and act about the subject. When we launched our mental health first aid (MHFA) training, colleague demand was huge. Almost overnight, people started sharing their experiences and talking about mental health.

We noticed how talking openly encouraged colleagues from different parts of the business to get to know each other and help break down silos, a key strategic objective for us.

As we started talking more about mental health, female colleagues started to come forward to talk about the mental health impact of the menopause and asking for support. Instead of hiding menopause within our mental health work, we decided to get menopause on the map at Aster Group as a standalone wellbeing initiative. We just needed to work out where to start…

Our menopause champions

We set up a focus group and held our first scoping meeting in September 2018.

Attendees included some of our mental health first aiders who were experiencing symptoms. They were keen to share their experiences and learn how they could support other colleagues. Out of that meeting we recruited 10 menopause champions. They wanted to provide support and signposting information to those experiencing symptoms and raise the profile of the menopause at work campaign.

Our first stop was to put emergency packs in all our office bathrooms. These included sanitary wear, freshening wipes, some packets of ‘one-size-fits-all’ emergency underwear and some body spray.

We also launched what we called the ‘black cardi initiative’.  This gave anyone caught short a discreet getaway item to tie round their waist to get to a change of clothes without too much embarrassment.

We also put USB fans on the stationery list as a standard item. These were flying off the shelves in the first few weeks and were a welcome addition, as I was repeatedly told!

Spreading the M word

In 2019, we added menopause at work guidance as an appendix to our wellbeing framework. This set out our objectives under our wellbeing offer.  We wanted to get the ‘M word’ out into the business so it didn’t end up as a dusty policy document on a shelf somewhere and a tick in the wellbeing box.

We decided to use training and awareness sessions to really get the message out there and held face-to-face sessions at all our offices. One was focussed on leaders and one was for general colleague awareness. These sessions explained why menopause was a workplace issue, what the menopause was and where to get support.

With more interest than spaces available and frustration of ‘missing out’ because of diary clashes and travel issues, the training was later translated into video eLearning and made available on-demand. We chose not to make menopause training for leaders mandatory. This was largely because the training was usually being accessed when the topic of menopause came up in a one-to-one and a manager needed some support to have the right conversation. General information on menopause, however, was available right from the start on our intranet. Loo news (posters on the back of toilet doors) have also educated quite a number of colleagues.

We also ran women-only sessions called ‘The Hot Topic’.  This gave our female colleagues a chance to open up about how they were feeling, talk about their experiences and get signposted to further support.

Menopause on tour

In January 2020, we took menopause ‘on tour’ as part of our wellbeing roadshows. We put awareness sessions on the agenda and menopause champions were on hand for drop-in chats. We also offered ‘M Word’ party bags as giveaways (the pop-up fans were particularly well received!).

It was important to us that we engaged our male colleagues. Feedback had told us some felt awkward asking questions with the worry of saying the wrong thing. So we piloted a men-only session called ‘Pause for Men’. Those that came along told us how valuable it was and how much they learned.

Unfortunately we didn’t get a chance to build on some of this work as COVID-19 hit the world and our attention turned to mental health and isolation. But by the end of 2020 we were ready to pick up the conversation again.

In January 2021 we ramped up our menopause offer, focussing on information and support for those living and working through menopause.

We launched The Sofa Sessions, a digital monthly catch up as a way to bring interested colleagues together in an informal way to talk about menopause.  These quickly developed and became a platform for menopause specialists to join us on the sofa and share information and resources on a range of topics from natural therapies to pelvic health.  We commissioned some new webinars on nutrition and exercise and myth-busting HRT. Plus we set up an MS Teams channel called ‘The Hot Topic’ which now has nearly 60 members.

Our work on menopause has been largely organic and developed over time in response to feedback. We gather input after every session we run to sense check what’s working and where the gaps might be. But more recently,  we surveyed our Hot Topic Group to gauge how we’ve moved on the conversation over the last three years.

Our progress

Their feedback told us that three years ago 43% would have felt unable to talk to their leader about the menopause. Today this figure is 4%.

Feedback also indicated we need to educate leaders, particularly those new to the business and those recently promoted into leadership roles. So we’ve invested in some new eLearning and we’ll be training up three colleagues to deliver menopause awareness sessions in the future.

We’re also building our menopause offer into our induction – the Aster Welcome. This means all colleagues get to understand what being menopause-friendly means when they join us.

What’s next?

Feedback from our survey said that including family members was important. This was both in terms of colleagues getting the support they need at home and to enable family members who may be suffering to access good quality information.  We’ve just started a 10-week programme with MenoHealth to do just that. I’m happy to see some mums and partners of colleagues have signed up.

In the last couple of months we’ve added menopause-related sickness to our absence reporting.  We want to use this data as a way to track culture change.  If we are successfully arming leaders with the right information and if the environment is pitched to talk openly about menopause, we should start seeing some menopause-related absence rather than it getting lost under other symptomatic categories.

Finally, there is certainly more work to do with engaging more widely and tailoring information in the right way to different colleague groups. I’m sure this will be an evolving piece over time.

What’s really working?

It was useful to understand what colleagues actually valued when it came to menopause support.  Top of the pops was the ability to share experiences and not feel alone. This was closely followed by the importance of an inclusive environment where you can talk openly about menopause.

The reality is that, for an employer, providing menopause support is financially very low cost. The investment is the commitment to build being menopause-friendly into your culture and the time it takes to build trust and create that psychological safety.  The initiatives you choose to do are important. But it really won’t matter if some things don’t work out as you planned.

For example, the real value of our menopause champions wasn’t wearing T-shirts, running drop-in sessions and promoting menopause. In fact, it came from the knowledge they shared initially and the core support they gave us to shape the programme.

What I’ve learned

There’s no shortage now of statistics and narrative out there to make a case why menopause in the workplace matters. But I’ve learned:

Listening to people really matters.  It was the bravery of a few ladies quietly whispering ‘please help us’ that started this whole journey. Some people will tell you what they need and some will just tell you how they feel.  My job was to create interventions that started to make a difference. Don’t be afraid to fail. Not everything works. Sometimes the timing isn’t right or it just isn’t right for your business. Just take the learning and try something new.

You don’t need to reach everyone to make an impact. I found that even with just 10 people willing to speak up and take action at the start we were able to start making a difference.

Don’t lose heart. I used to watch the booking system like a hawk in the lead up to those early training sessions. Then spend the hours before worrying if anyone would turn up.  They did, even if to begin with it was just a few. Word of mouth is your biggest advertisement and over time it works.

Keep messages consistent and the conversation going. This has helped embed menopause in our culture.  I’ve used all possible comms channels.  I promote heavily internally but I use my LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram to reach colleagues as well as external connections. Some colleagues don’t engage with corporate channels. But they might follow Insta stories and see something that sparks an interest or helps them reach out for information.

Acting on feedback has helped build the trust we needed to encourage more people to get behind the programme. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, so finding a variety of interventions, ways to engage and inform people has been really important for us.

What would I say to anyone thinking wondering about introducing menopause support at work? I’d say it’s not a nice thing to do… it’s the right thing to do for your people and your business.

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Menopause at work

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