Normalising the menopause conversation is the ending of utterly pointless stigma

IWD - Melissa Robertson, Dark Horses CEO
IWD - Melissa Robertson, Dark Horses CEO

In the week of International Women's Day, here’s what you can do in your organisation right now to make a difference.

A year ago, I publicly "came out" about being menopausal. I did it because I felt I was losing my mind, and if I didn’t confront it, I would end up spiralling into a hot mess of inadequacy, fearfulness and incapacity. Because how can you be responsible for running an agency when you struggle to remember basic words and names, or your fingers struggle to type because they’ve gone numb or have pins and needles, or you’re distracted by persistent itching, overwhelming heat/chill/tiredness/tenderness everywhere?

And, do you know what? It’s been brilliant. It’s been a weight off my mind. I don’t have to exhaustingly hide it anymore. In fact, I make a concerted effort to bring it up. Because normalising the conversation, without embarrassment, is the beginning of removing the utterly pointless stigma. Colleagues, clients, friends and strangers have been supportive, interested, interesting. I’ve learnt a lot, and I’ve met loads of brilliant people.

But it’s not actually a panacea to the menopause. I’m still very much in the throes of evolving symptoms. It’s helpful that I’m more alert to the diverse and downright odd range of stuff that can happen. And for all you people out there, of all ages and genders that want to help out, it’s probably worth you familiarise yourself with the kind of bonkers stuff that can happen:

Temperature

The classic thought that comes to mind of a menopausal woman is one with a hot flush or night sweat. But actually, because lowered oestrogen affects the body’s temperature regulation, you can also regularly feel chilled. 

Cognitive 

The brain’s chemistry balance can be affected by lowered oestrogen and causes all kinds of havoc, from word holes (my biggest issue), to memory lapses, anxiety, low self-esteem, mood swings, general brain fog and insomnia. 

Physical

Where to start? Lowered oestrogen can reduce muscle mass and connective tissue, weakening the "scaffold" of the skeleton, and affecting various parts of the body – heart palpitations, breast tenderness, aching joints and muscles, migraines, hair loss and bloating.

Sensation

Oestrogen impacts the central nervous system and circulation, sometimes creating uncomfortable and unexpected sensations like itchy skin, burning tongue, formication (feeling like insects are crawling over you), as well as changes to taste and smell.

For me, the word holes are ever-present, and my trusty aide-memoire glossary provides crucial relief. For some reason, words that start with c, d, s are peculiarly problematic.

I don’t always know what I’m going to lose, and I’m still fearful of looking stupid. Some days are like a permanent game of Articulate, with everyone having to be on my team and guess the right word. 

But the great thing is that it’s generated debate. I can’t pretend to be an expert, but I find myself something of an agony aunt to other menopausal women, and, pleasingly, their other halves.

“I think my wife is starting the menopause, but how do I bring it up without having my head bitten off?”

This was a question posed to me by a man, wanting to do the right thing, wanting to help, but painfully aware that any suggestion or implication might immediately be translated as “oh, so you think I’m being a grumpy bitch, do you???”

It’s a delicate tightrope, and one that business leaders should be scratching their heads about. How can you help people if they don’t yet realise that they need help? And then, how can you help them when they are very aware they need support, but there is no rule book about how to provide real support?

Because this is the thing that’s not going to change. It’s really shitty. There’s no getting around it. We need champions of all genders to push the debate. Half of us will go through menopause, and 80% of those will experience uncomfortable symptoms that will invariably affect them at work. How can that be a taboo topic? 

Here’s what you can do in your organisation right now to make a difference:

  • Start talking about menopause

  • Write a policy (steal our open-source one for speed)

  • Share the policy with the whole organisation

  • Train your line managers

  • Check with your healthcare and employee assistance providers for additional support

  • Appoint a menopause champion

  • Encourage conversation and support groups – formal or informal 

  • Do cool stuff like Timpsons paying for HRT for all colleagues prescribed it

And here’s my overarching message on International Women’s Day…

WORLD: GET OVER YOURSELF. 

Stop being so prudish, and start realising that affirmative action will help retain the brilliant women at senior levels you need to make your organisations more successful, more diverse, and more equal. It’s not ‘the right thing’ to do, it makes commercial sense, and your businesses will be all the richer for it (in both senses).

Melissa Robertson is chief executive of Dark Horses

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