Menopause - the thing I chose to ignore

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Muriel’s Wedding, the 1994 Australian film, touched on something few of us were talking about back then, and which I, at 22 was oblivious to…

For those who have not seen the movie my apologies for the spoiler, but towards the end, Muriel’s middle aged mum Betty (Jeanie Drynan) kills herself. A few days before, she’s pushing a shopping trolley around a supermarket visibly hot, exhausted and looking vacant. We know from previous scenes she’s become invisible to her family and her philandering husband – so much so that she snuck into the back of the church at her daughter Muriel’s wedding, and no-one even noticed her. In the store, she takes off her too-tight kitten heels and puts on a pair of comfy sandals on offer. Only she forgets to pay for them. She’s caught and reported to the police. Her husband tells her she’s an embarrassment. She tells him she needs help. He couldn’t care less. She takes her life a few days later leaving behind three kids.

In the UK women aged 50 – 54 have the highest suicide rate of all the female age groups in the UK according to the Office for National Statistics. It’s a figure I only recently became aware of when I read it in Gen M’s ‘Invisibility Report.’ 

It’s also the age at which most women go through menopause. The reasons for suicide are of course complex and multi-faceted. Yet it’s a piece of the puzzle we need to be aware of. Because menopause affects all of us.  

I know that there are still many people who shy away from talking about the menopause. For them, it’s a women’s issue, shrouded in mystery and embarrassment. Not something you’d dare mention at work or round the dinner table.  

Actually, it’s important we do talk about it. Because unless we normalise this, we won’t have a clue what’s happening to ourselves and the one’s we love. I too was unaware of too many of the realities of menopause until it zapped me, as it inevitably would… 

It started in around 2013 when I supressed a panic attack on a flight back from Italy, my heart was racing, I couldn’t breathe, I felt dizzy, trapped and I wanted to ground the plane and get the hell out. It took all of my strength not to melt down. I’ve flown many times. Being on an airplane wasn’t the issue and there was nothing else in my life to explain this rising sense of panic. 

Soon after, back home, I got vertigo. I’d be swaying around in shopping centres, had to lean against the walls for support. I delivered a lecture once as a lawyer and hung onto the lectern because I was close to fainting. The room spun and so did all the people and I had this hideous image of myself lying spread eagle on the floor in front of a room full of clients with my ‘employment law update’ notes scattered around me.  

What the hell was wrong with me? I started taking iron supplements. They didn’t work. A blood test at the doctor revealed no deficiencies. One day at work I couldn’t breathe. I left and went to the doctor. My heart was racing and I was shaking. They measured oxygen levels and all. Turns out I’d had a panic attack. I felt like an idiot. 

Then I went through menopause. Very fast and younger than most. I did some reading and everything I’d been experiencing fell into place. I learnt I’d been in ‘perimenopause’ on the flight and at the lectern. How different could those experiences have been with the knowledge I have now?  

My own experience is one thing, but let’s consider the wider impact. The day I went home with a panic attack gave no-one at work any joy. They were worried about me and weren’t equipped to support me. Medical staff were concerned, but no-one identified what was wrong or even thought it could be a symptom of menopause.  

Our collective ignorance has consequences. 

So what now? Well, as I’ve found out, this is not an issue that can be dealt with in isolation. It is a societal issue and we all have our part to play – including workplaces. It’s the reason byrne·dean has partnered with GenM. We want to do our part to create kinder, fairer workplaces and help make the menopause experience better today than yesterday.  

Menopausal women are now the fastest growing demographic in the workforce according to the Office for National Statistics. This presents a huge opportunity for businesses willing to engage.   

Here are five tips for positive action towards inclusion and a better understanding of an issue which will directly affect half your workforce: 

1. Make menopause a strategic/leadership issue.
There’s got to be a message from the top. Leaders can’t be delegating this down. This isn’t a ‘HR issue’ that’s ‘dealt with’ with just a policy. Like any serious issue affecting their staff, it’s from the leaders that the discussion’s got to be initiated.  People need to know their leaders care, that we’re in this together and we were not ignoring it.  

2. Arm colleagues with knowledge about menopause.
There’s lots to learn, so it’s important for this to be really digestible and accessible. The CIPD have some great resources including ‘Let’s Talk Menopause’ Posters as well as guides for HR Teams and for Managers. Line managers who are front facing need to understand what the symptoms are and the effect they have. Joining GenM has provided us at byrne·dean with tonnes of awareness raising resources especially designed for use in the workplace.  

3. Develop policy and address practicalities.
Think about the issue as holistically as possible. There’s nothing wrong with a stand-alone menopause policy but what about including it on a wider scale? In the equality and diversity policy; the sickness absence policy for example. What about building into your organisation’s approach to mental health some mental health first aiders, for example, have an awareness of it? What about collaborating with your EAP providers and Occupational Health providers to ensure proper integration? On a practical level, adjustments to working environments and patterns can be really helpful, depending on that person’s unique experience…but remember…. 

4. Avoid assumptions about someone’s possible experience.
Don’t generalise or stereotype. As with any type of discrimination, stereotyping of a group is degrading and makes things worse for those of us going through menopause. For each woman and each transgender man their journey will be different. Not all of us are affected by all the symptoms. 

5. Open up discussion.
This is the critical step in changing culture. For women entering the menopause, the experience can be frightening and alienating. If staff feel embarrassed or are fearful of stigmatisation, they won’t say anything. Normalising conversation around menopause will require people to feel safe in initiating or being involved in conversations. In our experience, this doesn’t just happen as a result of awareness raising – people need to learn and be shown how to do it. Fireside chats and the opportunity for training that is visibly endorsed by leadership is key.

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