Why I have to talk about the menopause

On 19 October I attended and spoke at the Institute of Directors, Enterprising Women’s Conference (#iodwomen) on why we must talk about menopause in the workplace.

Jayne Harrison talking at the IoD about the need to talk about menopause in the workplace

I was out of my comfort zone, never having spoken in front of such a big audience, and on such a huge stage.  I can’t say I relished the prospect, but I did it because I am passionate about this topic. It was a case of having to. I thought long and hard about how I was going to use the 15 minutes. I came up with 3 key areas that I think need to be discussed more widely:

1)     What menopause is – there’s a lot of embarrassment still around this topic. It will affect every single woman at some stage in her life, to a lesser or greater degree.

2)     Why it’s important for businesses to understand it and support women through it (more on this below)

3)     And what we can ALL do about it.

What is the Menopause?

So firstly I have to say that my experience of the symptoms was awful; it would still be very bad were I not taking HRT.  Only 25% of the female population will experience very severe symptoms (although that might also impact on friends, colleagues and partners/spouses too).

Menopause when broken down means meno – pause; basically a stop in the menstrual cycle usually by the age of 51 (on average – although some women experience this much younger or older). If it were only that easy, most women would be cheering that on. It also comes with a raft of hormonal changes too; the most notable of which is a reduction in oestrogen production in the body. This leads to many of the symptoms below (although progesterone and testosterone also play a part). It’s a complete lottery and there is no ‘one size apply to all’ range of symptoms – or therefore how to manage it.

These include:

Physical

  1. Hot flushes – the most commonly known about and a source of ridicule
  2. Night sweats – leading to long periods of broken sleep, or no sleep at all
  3. Dry skin/itchiness
  4. Lack of libido/Vaginal atrophy
  5. Memory loss – there has recently been a study into the link between oestrogen deficiency and Alzheimers.
  6. Panic attacks
  7. On a longer term level : osteoporosis, bone density loss, cardiovascular problems

Psychological/emotional

  1. Loss of concentration
  2. Inability to think clearly (brain fog – or meno brain as I like to call it)
  3. Lack of confidence and reduced self esteem
  4. Loss of identity
  5. Feeling low/depressed
  6. Feeling anxious, particularly entering into something new or uncertain
  7. Lack of motivation/energy

I’ve written about the impact of these symptoms here. But that’s not why I’m writing this today. I’m urging ALL businesses to take note and here’s why:

Why Businesses Should Take Note

  • By 2020 it is estimated that 1 in 3 British workers will be over 50
  • 75 – 80% of menopausal women are in work
  • There has been a 72% increase in last 20 years of women over 50 in the workplace and 4.2m economically active women in the UK today (that will continue to rise as we are an aging demographic )
  • Today our life expectancy on average is 81 – this means we will spend a third of our lives menopausal (and very possibly at work for a large proportion of this time)
  • A staggering 25% of women considered leaving work due to their symptoms
  • And a recent DWP report really nails it for me: in 5 year’s time there will be an extra 14.5m jobs in UK but only 7m new entrants
  • Growth in female leadership– the number of females on FTSE Board has doubled since 2011 from 12% to 23%. Can you really afford to let your top team down in this way?
  • 35% of legislators, senior officials and managers are women and this is likely to continue to grow!

As a woman in her 50s I have more to offer now than I ever did – more knowledge, experience, emotional intelligence, wisdom, and I’m engaged in the work I love – because I’ve found out who I am and what that is.  But I’m not prepared to stay with businesses that are short sighted, inflexible, and attached to an outmoded paradigm of working (the 9am – 5pm). Linda Gratton has written eloquently about this in her book The 100 Year Life – I won’t go into it here – but just to say these issues are here to stay as our longevity increases.

The gap that exists between what is possible, what is needed for individuals to enjoy, be productive and be engaged in their work will continue to widen if we don’t wake up.

If you own or lead a business how can you afford to let a significant proportion of the population just disappear from your talent pools?

What about those who chose to stay but are struggling with their symptoms? We have a productivity issue in this country already; don’t let an issue that can be relatively easily supported get in the way.

If you are not engaging with the older demographic – good luck to you! By the way, we’re the ones who will be buying your products.

I’m hoping I’m making my point. What’s the obsession with youth and millennials anyway? 50 is the new 30 – we’re not all elbow-pad blazer-sporting, twinset and pearls clad fuddy duddies. We’ve got iPads, we’re on social media, we’re here for the long haul. Not because we HAVE to (although with the pension situation as it is, that is also a consideration) it’s because we WANT to contribute. We’ve still got a third of our lives left. I don’t want to spend it rocking in a chair knitting thank you very much!

I may not have the same energy levels as I did when I was in my twenties (although I would still give some a run for their money) but the quality of my work, reflective capabilities, ability to form deep relationships and critical thinking skills are sharper than ever.

I know I’m venting but I don’t want this to be the same way for the next generation of women (and men, as it affects us all). We’ve come a long way with diversity and inclusion, but we still have a long, long way to go. Unless we start to recognise menopause for the life stage it is and apply more imaginative, creative, flexible approaches to our working structures then not only will businesses suffer, but our entire UK economy will suffer too. It’s not just menopause I’m talking about here; it’s what the recent research termed “gendered ageism” (The Effects of Menopause Transition on Women’s Economic Participation in the UK; Dept of Education; July 2017).

So what can you do about it?

I’ve written about how coaching can support individuals here and read about how pioneering organisations are making strides in this area here and here.  There is a tide change around this issue which is also evidenced through #WorldMenopauseDay #HotFlashMob and informative broadcasts by Victoria Derbyshire, Channel 5 and Kirsty Wark. There are some very low cost, easy to implement, and relatively temporary solutions that can make all the difference.

If you want to spend half a day exploring some of these issues come along to Menopause in the Workplace Conference on 23 January in Nottingham from 1pm onwards. To find out more, please book here.

But it’s simple really – create a culture that recognises individuals. Support managers to have decent conversations, and time to think about/care for their employees and their wellbeing.  Put wellbeing high on your agenda – and mean it. Creates spaces for individuals to be heard.  If people are truly your greatest assets – prove it! We are not capital, we are human beings; 47% of whom will go through this life stage, supported or not. So what do you want your legacy to be as an employer?

Source: Jayne Harrison on Linkedin