with Helen Tomlinson
51% of the population will experience menopause during their lives, yet this is a topic that even the majority of women know very little about.
Menopause can be accompanied by a number of symptoms, ranging from physical to psychological, which can significantly impact a person’s ability to work effectively.
Recently one of our Lift Up ambassadors, Katy Barber, had the pleasure of sitting down with Helen Tomlinson, Government Menopause Employment Champion and the Head of Talent & Inclusion at The Adecco Group, to talk about how employers can more effectively support their employees through the menopause.
The Impact of Menopause in the Workplace
Helen explained that symptoms will impact people’s work in different ways depending on the type of role they are in. Symptoms can be physical or psychological, while roles can be autonomous, semi-autonomous or non-autonomous, which dictates how flexible their working schedules are to fit around potential distress or discomfort.
Helen thinks of non-autonomous roles as frontline workers who have no choice but to physically show up to work, such as nurses, doctors, teachers etc. For these workers, physical symptoms such as hot flushes, night sweats, very heavy periods, and incontinence are very difficult to manage, making them debilitating in some cases.
Psychological symptoms are more likely to be detrimental to people in more autonomous roles. Symptoms like lack of confidence and anxiety often lead to confidence issues, which can put women in remote working roles at a disadvantage compared to their non-menopausal peers.
Everybody will experience different symptoms and be affected by them in different ways, but it’s down to individuals and employers to find ways to manage them effectively within the workplace.
Creating Supportive and Inclusive Workplaces
When it comes to creating a supportive company culture, having a menopause policy is only the beginning. Helen told us that “All the policy does is start the conversation to change the culture of an organisation.” While that’s a brilliant thing, there is still a lot of work to be done afterwards.
Businesses need to offer manager training, safe spaces, support networks, etc. While managers are not intended to become counsellors or offer medical advice, having the knowledge to be able to adequately support someone in the workplace is an essential part of their role.
Reasonable adjustments are another key component of creating an inclusive workplace. Often there are no treatments available for menopausal symptoms, but small adjustments to expectations or environments in the workplace can make them more comfortable and accessible for someone who is going through the menopause. Asking each individual ‘What can I do to make things easier for you?’ will often be the most effective method of creating these adjustments, because everyone will experience the menopause differently. Helen said that a key thing to remember is to “not make assumptions about what will work for that person, because it’s a very personal thing”. Having individual conversations will also create a culture of open communication, which will benefit your whole team.
Another piece of advice that Helen shared was “don’t immediately go into solution mode”. While it’s human nature to try to help people, not every solution will be welcome to everybody. Helen gave us an anecdote which perfectly illustrated her point:
“When I was perimenopause,” she said, “I had really bad hot flushes. I worked in an office that was pretty much all glass, and it was a very hot summer, so it was like working in the greenhouse. I told my manager “I’m really hot. I’m having hot flushes”, then one morning he bought me a fan, and he put a sticker on it that said, ‘Helen’s fan, do not remove’. I thought it was fantastic.
Later everybody started saying, ‘Why have you got a fan and I haven’t got a fan?’, so I had to keep telling them ‘Oh, I’m having hot flushes’. If I’d been a less confident person, or it was something that I didn’t want people to know about, that could have really destroyed my confidence. So my advice would be to ask before you do something, don’t assume they’re gonna love a fan with their name on a sticker on it. It’s really important that you ask the question, and listen to the answer and act accordingly.”
What Can Women Do To Support Each Other?
Women represent 51% of the population, and around 44% of them struggle with severe or heavy periods. Until the stigma around these topics is destroyed, women are going to continue to struggle in silence.
Talking about and normalising menstrual and menopausal health is the beginning of creating an environment where women feel comfortable standing up for their needs in the workplace. This is particularly important for women who are in non-autonomous or semi-autonomous roles, particularly in care of client-facing positions where they don’t have the ability to leave when they need to.
Another benefit to talking about these topics is creating shared experiences and communities in the workplace. Helen said that “I absolutely thought that this was only happening to me. I see part of my role as having that conversation and normalising it so that if somebody was suffering with that, they don’t feel like they’re the only person.” Often the most common symptoms are the most difficult to talk about, but sharing your story can really help other people in a similar situation by helping them feel less alone.
The Importance Of Menopause Policies
Helen and her team launched their Menopause Policy on World Menopause Day in 2022. At that time only 10% of companies in the UK had a policy to support people going through the menopause, so Helen started lobbying for the government to make it a legal requirement for organisations of over 250 people to have one. The Menopause Mandate and Women and Equalities Committee are currently working on a strategy for it.
However, Helen warns that a policy is only useful if an organisation doesn’t have a positive culture to begin with. She said that “If somebody came to me now and said, ‘Can I see the Adecco menopause policy, I would feel like I totally failed, because what it’s done is created a catalyst of events that has fundamentally changed the culture of the organisation.” The policy itself gives people a level of protection and support, but what’s genuinely needed is a change in cultures across the country.
Initiating Conversations Around Menopause
Helen’s advice to leaders is to get involved. Whether that’s with sharing your own experiences or learning from people in your organisation who have been through the menopause, being involved with the conversations in your company is important if you want to spearhead development in your culture. Seeing positive change and lack of stigma from the leadership team can help employees feel far more comfortable discussing their experiences and needs at work.
If you’re an employee who wants to raise the topic of the menopause at work, Helen’s suggestion was to do your homework and collect data first. If you’re able to back you requests with facts like ‘women over 50 are the fastest growing demographic in the workforce, and this is an issue that commonly affects them’, your leaders are far more likely to consider your requests. You can also raise topics like talent retention and lowering rates of women in leadership to support your argument, as menopausal health will have a direct impact on both of these areas, which makes menopause support an important cause for the business. Finally, creating a compliant and well-rounded EDI policy is both the right thing to do and a legal requirement, which is another compelling reason for leadership to get involved with supporting menopausal health.
Women’s health is a multi-million-pound industry. There are so many resources available that there will be at least one that works for you in your environment. Within the workplace, Helen suggests utilising the following:
- Inclusion brunches
- Education sessions
- Training sessions
- Menopause cafes
- Allyship programmes
Some places you might like to look for support are:
- The Women’s Wellbeing Collective
- Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development
- Chartered Management Institute
- British Standards Institute