Supporting Women through Menopause and beyond
October is Menopause Awareness Month. We caught up with Menopause Ally Lead Sarah Shaw, Partner and Head of Education at Odgers Interim, to find out how the menopause affects women, what employers can do to support menopausal women in the workplace, and what we can all do to become menopause allies.
Sarah, you have been at the forefront of raising Menopause awareness in our firm and beyond. Can you tell us a little bit about the actual symptoms of the menopause, how they affect women, and how this might impact them on a day-to-day basis?
The menopause has been a fascination of mine ever since I started my own journey which began as one of medical misdiagnosis, and thus the reign of complete confusion began as I grappled with everything from itchy skin to night (and day) sweats to wanting to scream from the rooftops with an irrational anger which blew in like a hurricane and left me exhausted on departure. Brain fog is a classic symptom (forgetting words and people’s names, forgetting why you came into a room, forgetting what you had just forgotten) and it needs to be recognised that the various phases of the menopause are just that – there is the peri-menopausal phase which has several dozen recognised symptoms ranging from anxiety, depression, bloating and increase in allergies to fatigue, sweats or flashes to loss of libido – and some feel loss of their very minds - as well as the menopause and post-menopause phases.
I know women who think they are experiencing the first signs of dementia, as some of their symptoms are so mentally debilitating. But these symptoms, as diverse as they are, can be managed and dealt with. Knowing you are on the menopause journey can actually be a relief because things will start to make sense then. Knowing why you are anxious, irritable or forget the name of your boss is half the battle!
How does the menopause impact the careers of women?
Impact can show itself in many forms. Some symptoms result in significant and prolonged sleep deprivation and without support can really affect performance at work. Stress and anxiety can induce a lack of confidence which inhibits pushing for promotion internally or going for a new position elsewhere. I am aware of women who have resigned from their roles because they start to suffer from imposter syndrome and feel like failures when they are nothing of the sort. It is truly important for a woman to recognize why they experience this life change and to seek the right support to manage their symptoms. It is just as important for organisations to recognize and support their staff and for search organisations to do the same when working with their clients and candidates.
Is there something women can do to lighten the impact of menopause on their lives?
There are many strategies a woman can take to enable her to cope with her menopause journey. Feeling able to communicate and feeling they will be listened to is a vital step. Visiting their doctor and asking for specialist advice if necessary is important too. HRT (hormone replacement therapy) is an excellent way of relieving a lot of symptoms as it is returning the hormones diminished during the menopause to the body. There are added benefits too, such as the likely prevention of the thinning of bones by taking HRT. HRT does not suit everybody, and some feel uncomfortable taking it, but there are alternatives which can help if researched and taken properly, such as vitamin and mineral supplements, and some very important lifestyle changes can certainly help as well, such as reducing alcohol intake, ceasing smoking, and improving one’s diet by cutting back on processed foods, seed oils, and sugar in particular.
Finding a support network is great for mental health and wellbeing. This can be a friendship group, an online offer dedicated to the menopause, or even reading books and listening to podcasts devoted to the subject. Information and understanding are key – the more you know and better understand your body, the more you can take control and see this as a journey in your life – not the end of it.
What support can employers offer women whilst going through the menopause?
The right support can take many forms at work. Having a menopause policy is a strong indicator an employer is treating the issue with the critical importance it deserves and that they will protect their staff and not disadvantage those who are experiencing the menopause.
Having a menopause friendly office is also hugely beneficially: the ability to work flexibly, having the right equipment such as suitable chairs, a fan at their desk, air con, a quiet room to sit in, good quality cold water to drink, herbal teas to choose from, etc. Other initiatives can be a support group, a Menopause Café or drop-in centre and even health and wellbeing days to promote menopause advice and guidance.
This support can also be directed at those in a menopausal woman’s network, such as their spouse, partner, family member, etc., to help them understand their experiences. A firm which has such initiatives in place and promotes them to their staff is one bent on openness, tolerance, and inclusivity. Speaking out helps boost confidence and empowers women to be honest and be themselves – which is an important step forward.
What can colleagues, friends, and families do to support women going through the menopause?
The best thing they can do is read up on what the menopause is and be there for those experiencing it. A male colleague may not go through the symptoms themselves, but they have women in their own social circles and families who do so. The more they can be knowledgeable and compassionate, the better their understanding will be. Being empathetic and tolerant is vital. I would also argue in our work at Odgers that we must display sympathy and understanding for our candidates, as a significant proportion will be on this special journey too. It is special because it is part of a woman’s life for a time – we should not fear it, laugh at it, or discriminate because of it.
Next month, October, is Menopause Awareness Month. What can we all do to raise awareness of the symptoms and the impact of the menopause?
The best thing we can do is understand it. Once everyone understands what the menopause really is, we can move to a position of being more open about it. Ignorance is not bliss - it is foolhardy. It is nothing to be embarrassed about and nothing to shy away from or pretend it is not happening.
Companies that do not open their eyes, do not dig their heads out of the sand and deliberately remain blissfully ignorant are likely to lose key members of their workforce. Women will vote with their feet. Enlightened men may very well do the same. Such companies will then be bereft of diverse talent and there is enough research to show diverse companies outperform those that are not progressive in this way. The menopause will last more than a month – but this October is a very good start to getting the M message out there.
If you would like to have an informal conversation about the menopause or find out more about how we support colleagues, candidates and clients affected by menopause, please contact Sarah Shaw.