Episode 5 - Getting menopause on the agenda

In this podcast, Deborah Garlick, Founder of Henpicked and CEO of Henpicked: Menopause in the Workplace, describes the realities of the menopause transition for women in the workplace.

In this podcast, Deborah Garlick, Founder of Henpicked and CEO of Henpicked: Menopause in the Workplace, describes the realities of the menopause transition for women in the workplace. She explains that it’s about more than hot flushes and affects women in different ways at varying ages and stages in their life and career. Deborah outlines compelling reasons why menopause should be taken seriously by the board, from how it affects the bottom line to how it can influence brand and reputation. She also suggests practical steps company secretaries can take to help their board address menopause, highlighting a shift in public mood that makes this an urgent issue requiring immediate action.


RJ: In this podcast, I'm talking to Deborah Garlick, Founder of Henpicked, about the menopause transition, how it affects the workforce, what the board should be taking into account and the risks it might pose for a company. Deborah, could you begin by introducing yourself and give us an initial overview of the topic that we're discussing today?

DG: Thank you, Rachael. Yes, as you mentioned, I'm the Founder of Henpicked and also the CEO of Henpicked: Menopause in the Workplace, and the author of the book Menopause: The Change for the Better. And in its title, you can tell how I feel about menopause and where we would like to get to with hearts and minds around the menopause and making sure everybody gets the right support that they need.

RJ: Okay, thank you for that introduction. Why are we talking more about menopause now than perhaps we have done in the past?

DG: It's a really good question, Rachael, isn't it, because menopause has always been around. But we are in a very different environment today. A lot has changed. For example, if we go back to around about 100 years ago, as far as records tell us, women tended to experience menopause around about 57 and died at 59, on average. It was very much viewed as an end-of-life experience, understandably. Whereas where we are today, we are living for longer, we're working for longer. The majority of us will be working until our late 60s, and menopause hits many of us at a time that is possibly closer to the midpoint of our career, rather than the end of our lives. So, a very, very different environment. Of course, when we look at demographics, we know in the UK, in particular, the global north, for that matter, we are an ageing population. That's similar in some places around the world, too. There's more of us in work than ever before, more of us with bigger responsibilities, bigger jobs, maybe on the board, than ever before. And that is a very, very different environment.

RJ: What are the key compelling reasons why this is important at work?

DG: There's very compelling reasons. For example, the business case is an important one. [It’s] certainly one that we're seeing a lot of employers sitting up and starting to appreciate, particularly since the publication of the Government Equalities Office report in 2017, which led to headlines like, ‘the UK is losing millions every year because bosses don't get menopause, or they don't understand menopause’. When it comes to the business case around menopause, there are some really easy-to-identify benefits to an organisation. For example, we're seeing more research around how many people consider leaving work during their menopause. If you looked at Wellbeing of Women's statistics back in 2016, they said one in four women consider it. The Fawcett Society report came out a couple of weeks ago, and they were saying potentially 333 women had actually left work.

There is actually a tangible cost to that. If you look at Oxford Economics research, they say it costs around about £30,000 to replace somebody on an average salary of £25,000, which is fairly low in today's world. When you consider that, if you look at your demographics as an organisation, and you start to crunch those numbers, it can be very costly to be losing and having to replace talent from the business and unnecessarily, unnecessarily I'd add that.

We know retention is a key [reason why this is important at work]. Performance and absence and sickness, there's still a lot more research to be done around that, but a lot of people are saying, I'm taking time off as a result of my menopause. What we're starting to see now, which I think is absolutely revolutionary, the first time it happened last June, was an employer that put in their job advert that they were a menopause-friendly employer. And I thought that was quite something.

One [reason menopause is important at work] that is becoming increasingly focused on is employment law. Now this is different around the world, of course it is. In the UK, we have very strong employment law. A lot of people don't realise that menopause is already covered by the Equality Act under the protected characteristics of age, sex and even disability, and requirements under the Health and Safety at Work Act too. Because it's being talked about in Parliament now and the question’s being asked, ‘what more can we do to support those experiencing menopause at work?’, that [employment law] is likely to get even tougher in the UK. That's going to be much more compelling. We've seen employers lose at employment tribunals because they didn't take menopause seriously.

I think the one that we are seeing the most action on is appreciation of social responsibility. Having employment law is one thing, but we all want to work for an employer of choice, somebody that understands and puts our wellbeing centre stage, they're the sort of employers that we would all much sooner work for. Most employers are doing this, because it's good for diversity and inclusion, it’s good for the well-being of colleagues. All of that is a very, very compelling case [for addressing menopause in the workplace]. It pays back very, very quickly for an employer who puts menopause awareness, education and support in place.

RJ: Absolutely. You mentioned about there being more women on boards, for example. How can menopause affect the success of getting more women on boards, for example? How can it affect the pipeline?

DG: That's a really good question. One organisation that we supported, this was back in 2018, one of the key things that they were focusing on [was], ‘we want to improve our pipeline, we want to have a more diverse board, we want to include more women’. But there seems to be a bit of a, and it was described as, ‘a hole in our bucket, or a hole in our pipeline’, in that the number of women that were putting themselves forward for board positions, or in that pipeline, was actually shrinking in their view, that people weren't putting themselves forward for it. And I get that.

I could cover the impact around ages, stages, symptoms and solutions because I think that answers the question. When you look at those four things, and age first. The menopause transition happens a lot earlier than people realise. On average, it's between [the age of] 45 and 55. In the UK, the average is 51. That's different around the world, by the way, because ethnicities and environments can have an impact on menopause age. If you just look at that average age of 51 in the UK, now that is younger than many people realise, and somebody that's 51 could still be at work for another two decades after that one day in time. When you start to appreciate that menopause is a transition, which happens over many years, the average age is not the whole story by any stretch. Before that time, [of the menopause beginning] is what's known as the perimenopause. Now perimenopause simply means, menopause means ceasing of periods, perimenopause means – ‘peri’, ‘around’, so around the time of ceasing of periods. There's not enough information about how long that is, and we are all unique in this transition. It could be up to ten years that that transition starts for an individual. If you think of that average age of 51, and if you take ten years off that, that means you need to be thinking about menopause or keeping your eye out for symptoms in your early 40s. That's [a] very, very different sort of age group or what people expect of menopause.

I mentioned symptoms there and when somebody could be experiencing symptoms, and I think this is something worth exploring too, because we all recognise hot flushes, don't we? The stereotypical symptom around menopause: hot flushes. But research after research, and I could quote here, the research that was done by the Trade Union Congress (TUC) in 2018, the work that was done [by] the UK House of Commons research in February of this year 2022, and The Fawcett Society, and they're all saying the same thing. The thing that we need to appreciate about the symptoms [is] yes, there are the physical symptoms around hot flushes and changes in weight, aches and pains, headaches, changes in periods, of course, urinary tract infections, changes in urinary urge, those sorts of things. But actually, the psychological symptoms are the ones that women are continually saying are the ones that affect them, possibly the most. If I look at the Fawcett Society, and the House of Commons and the TUC research, it was said, sleep difficulties were a problem, anxiety and worry, difficulty concentrating, hot flushes were in there, but so was fatigue. When you start to appreciate the range of symptoms and how they could affect someone, you can really understand how they might chip away at somebody's confidence at work or chip away at how somebody might cope with all of the things that they did before when those symptoms might sneak up on them or start to affect them, even before they realise that they are in the menopause transition.

RJ: How can a company secretary go about approaching this area to help educate their organisation and their board? And to help support the women in the organisation?

DG: Well, my top tips for how to get this on the workplace agenda, first of all, I'd start with understanding if there's anything already going on in the organisation. Because we know a lot of employers are already taking action. [In] a lot of organisations, the HR team are already starting to look at menopause policies or guidance documents or what they might need to do. We know a lot of organisations where they've started to have things like menopause cafes to get the conversation going, or support groups, or even organisations that are starting to recognise things like World Menopause Day on 18 October.

If your organisation is not already doing something, what I would recommend doing is starting to understand how this might benefit your organisation. Looking at the demographics of your organisation, every organisation is unique, as unique as individuals are, so are organisations, so their approaches are different. Thinking about your demographics, for example, in the NHS, they're 77% female, and thinking how many people could be affected by this right now? Looking at some of those statistics around the cost of losing talent or the cost of retaining talent. Looking at the risks around, if our line managers aren't educated on this, and we find ourselves at a tribunal, there's tangible risks around fines, etc. There's also a tangible risk on the impact of your brand and its reputation. Would people want to work for you? Thinking about it in terms of the business case. I'm pretty sure in the UK, it won't be that long before there is more in place from a [legal] point of view, but of course, that's different around the world. Starting to get to grips with what's the business case for your organisation would be key.

Starting to appreciate the appetite for this in your organisation. I can remember the very first organisation that published their menopause policy, they came to one of our events, and the board director said, ‘how do I get this talked about on the board? How do I talk to them about this is something we might want to consider?’ My suggestion was, can you tell them that you've been to a menopause session today, and this is what you learned, and this is why we think we ought to be doing something about it? The interesting feedback from her was that it was a lot easier to raise this as a subject than she thought it was going to be. She said what she heard from her board of directors was, ‘my wife's experiencing this,’ or, ‘I saw something about this on the TV.’ They were just as eager to get the conversation started. She found that she was pushing on an open door. What we're seeing is, it's not just a female board director that is taking the lead on putting menopause on the agenda in the workplace. We see a lot of organisations who are also male-dominated, wanting to put menopause on the agenda.

Whether it's your finance director appreciating this is the difference it can make to your bottom line, or the HR director saying, this is how we can benefit our employee brand. This is good for all organisations. We've not found one yet that didn't say it's a win-win. It's good for our colleagues, and it's been good for our business too. So do put it on the on the agenda and don't be surprised if there's a lot more appetite for it than you might possibly realise.

What we need to appreciate, so many people think that this is a women-only issue, but it's really not. In fact, it's a really inclusive conversation. I often see the statistics that say half of the population will be affected by menopause. That's not true: all of the population can be affected by menopause, half of us experience it first-hand, but the other half experience it through their relationships, whether that's with a partner, family member, friend, or colleague, or somebody in your team. The appetite we see from partners, males, and young adults around the menopause has been a real eye opener. This is probably where we are with the journey that this is more of an interest now than it was before.

It is a fully inclusive subject, both in terms of who can be affected by menopause, who needs to know about it, and also, who's got a part to play in support, whether it’s at home [or] at work. There's a huge amount of appetite from everyone around menopause understanding.

RJ: Talking about areas that can be affected, and we touched on it earlier, but I'm really interested to talk about it a little bit more, the pipeline to the boardroom. Because of the time of life that you were talking about, the age, even if it is a bit younger, it might still coincide with the time when people are getting on the right track for moving towards the boardroom. I wonder if that's something that organisations are beginning to identify, you talked about the ‘hole in the bucket’, are they making that connection and actively seeking to address it?

DG: I think more and more organisations are. This is the lightbulb moment when they start to appreciate, this is where we're looking for our pipeline, and those individuals can be affected. They may not feel capable of doing the job because menopause can hit on your confidence for those reasons I described earlier with the symptoms. But yeah, starting to take it much more seriously that this could be stopping us from achieving the mix on our board that we actually want to see. Appreciating the ages, stages and symptoms is essential in understanding and helping to avoid the situation where your pipeline is affected.

RJ: How can a company secretary advise a board in this area? What do you think they should be suggesting the board can do?

DG: There's various things that an employer can do to be a menopause-friendly employer. I would also say to a company secretary that our experience over the last six years is these campaigns are not expensive. It's very often small, simple things that can make a world of difference. It's important to get a plan in place.

Stage one is making sure that it's absolutely clear that the organisation understands that this is something that's important. That comes down to recognising the business case, whether that's actually the numbers or appreciating what being a good responsible employer looks like. Making it clear that your organisation takes this seriously. Many organisations do that through publishing and communicating a menopause policy, or a menopause guidance document, or building up a website of menopause materials that say, we understand menopause and we're there to support if needs be. Also, getting the conversation started around menopause. Because people can feel that this is a taboo subject; it’s all right for me to say, let's talk about menopause, it's all I do seven days a week, to be fair. When people come to this for the first time, it can feel a little bit awkward, a little bit alien. Once you get used to talking about menopause, and communicating about it, I would say that people have told us time and time again that you do get used to it fairly quickly. The more and more you get used to it and the more you normalise that conversation and the word itself, the better it is for everyone.

I would also say, it's always powerful when it's somebody from the board that is prepared to share their story, or be able to say, I'll be the sponsor for that particular piece of work, because it's something that's important to me. So, look for a sponsor that would be prepared to do that.

Then listen to what your colleagues are telling you is important to them. If you've got staff forums, or if you've already got gender balance networks, for example, could they be people that you could talk to, to say, this is what we're thinking of doing, what's your thoughts around this? I'm sure they will help generate some ideas around what would be useful, bearing in mind every organisation's unique, you've got different roles in there, you've got different leadership styles, different cultures, different existing policies and practices. Talking to people within your organisation and saying, this is something that we're thinking about raising, what do you think about this? You could tap into that as a resource.

Don't forget training, because I can honestly say it's so powerful when you train up your occupational health teams, and your HR teams, and your line managers, because those line managers aren't born with menopause knowledge either. You'll be surprised how many of them will say, I'd be really worried about getting this wrong.

Also, tapping into your existing resources, because many employers have already got a lot of things in place, and may not even realise, for example, their employee assistance program, or their occupational health, may have already had training in this, it's worth checking in with them and saying, ‘what's your level of knowledge?’ ‘What could you do for somebody?’

Looking at things as well like, uniforms and the practical things about, is there a temperature control? Can you order desk fans? Is that uniform, can it be varied? Can somebody order more kit if needs be, if they're struggling with hot flushes and need to wash it more often? All of those things I've just talked through, are all pretty practical, aren't they?

RJ: Yes. Do you think, thinking about practical steps that you can take, can the company secretary then almost be somebody who can collate all of that together? Like you said, if different parts of the organisation have already done training, but perhaps it's not been put together, as, this is what we have on the menopause so far. Is that a practical step that the company secretary could take to make progress in this area?

DG: Oh, definitely, they can make a huge amount of difference. This is our experience – some organisations are very large. We've been contacted by different parts of the organisation, and we've pretty much said, can I just connect you to your HR team? Because they're already starting to work on this. D&I have already identified it as something that they need to look at and HR have already started to implement something. And then you've got little group in a little unit that started a support group. It is really worthwhile checking in with some of those functions to say, is this on your radar? Is this something that we're already doing? When I talked through those practical steps earlier around menopause policies, guidance documents, getting a communication and engagement plan together, a training plan, looking at various practical support that's available, these campaigns work best, these interventions work best, when it is a coordinated plan. It makes it so much more impactful and also easier for the organisation. So do check, but also do connect in with the various functions. If it's not on the radar now, I’d probably ask why it's not, because the landscape has dramatically changed in the UK. And Rachael, we're already seeing a lot of organisations internationally starting to take action around this and look at what they need to do. This is something that is going global.

RJ: If a company secretary isn't lucky enough to have a board that is open to this, if they meet resistance, how can they keep pushing the agenda to make sure the board takes it seriously?

DG: I guess that comes down to why it's not being taken seriously, doesn't it? Because, if it's your finances, your organisation needs your finance director on board to say yes, we can put a budget behind it. The business case is incredibly compelling. If you just look at, if we avoid one or two people leaving in our organisation, that will be £30, 60,000 worth of money freed up and this campaign won't cost more than that. Actually, after that, you're into a positive effect on your bottom line.

Or is it the HR director, what is the reason, have they got other priorities that are competing? I would also add to that, that, this isn't something that's coming on the radar for something that is coming up. This is something that is really live right now and is affecting individuals at work and affecting organisations right now. I'd really dial up on the urgency because organisations compete for talent, don't they? Wherever you are in the world, I've not met an HR person yet that says it's a doddle to fill a vacancy when you've got one.

I would say also look at perhaps some of the things that other organisations in your industry are doing because menopausal women can join other organisations, or they could walk straight past your door in the future. This is also future-proofing your workforce, as well as all of those things like protecting you from a legal perspective. And all those lovely things, I often think carrot and stick here. For me, the social responsibility, being the best place to work, is something that the best employers will look at as something that is absolutely key.

RJ: Yeah, I'm interested that you talked a little bit about risk [and] you said about this being something that's urgent. I wonder if some of that urgency comes from the fact that during the pandemic at its height, we came to understand the importance of our employees [and as a result] I think there is more emphasis on these kinds of issues. I wonder if, from a reputational risk point of view, that also makes this issue more urgent, because like you said, if you get it wrong, or if you're not doing enough, or just by doing nothing, you're notable by your absence, do you think that those are factors?

DG: I think they are very good factors. Reputational risk, it's interesting, when we talk about reputational risk, it's not just what your employees think of you, it’s what your customers think of you as well, isn't it? I know there are a lot of employers, for example, like the retailers, as well as wholesalers, manufacturers, all sorts of different employers are taking action. You wouldn’t want to be the one that isn't, would you? From a reputational risk on the employment law side, you wouldn’t want yourself being googled as the organisation that messed up around the menopause, because that will linger for a very long time. I have to say, very often when I see employment law articles, whether it's in the media or whether it's through HR channels, and they talk about menopause tribunals, very often, it's those few that are in the public domain [that are mentioned]. It's a really big risk when there is still a small enough number that actually, don't add your name to that list.

RJ: Absolutely. Do you have any top tips for company secretaries for things they should be doing right now to address this issue in their company?

DG: Well, firstly, it's great that you're doing this podcast today. Because it gives people an opportunity to understand the impact that they can have on so many people if they do introduce it into their organisation, because as I say, you know, look at your demographics, appreciate how many people could be affected by this.

Start by checking what your organisation is already doing, because you don't want to raise it at the board and then perhaps have the finance director or the HR director say, ‘actually, I think we've got a policy on that.’ So do do some checking, first of all, to see what's already in play.

I would definitely check in with some of the networks that you might have. Some organisations have gender networks, you might have a diversity and inclusion network, for example. If you can have a check in with them to see what their thoughts might be because it'd be good to go with, looking at what we've got already, and talking to some people, this is something that we believe, or I believe, will be really helpful for individuals in our organisation.

Check into what it is that you can do, doesn't have to be a massively expensive, elaborate programme to make a big difference in your organisation. Always look at things like your policy and guidance, your training, getting the communications going. Doing a practical steps around, is there anything environmentally that is making menopause symptoms worse, or we could adjust to make things easier for people? Get your head around that, along with the business case, and do your prep before you go to the meeting. Be confident: menopause can affect us all, half of us first-hand, the other half through our relationships. Somebody around that table will be very happy to have that conversation and join you in it, I would say.

RJ: Are there any key dates or awareness events that company secretaries could use to flag up these issues and get the momentum going in their organisation?

SC: There are Rachael and it depends when somebody's listening to this podcast because there are some key dates in the year when you will see more and more menopause conversations. In May, we have National Women's Health Week. On 18 October, we have World Menopause Day. Around the world, [there’s] Menopause Awareness Month, in the UK we say October, I know in the US they tend to do a lot of activity in September. Also, International Women's Day is when we tend to see a huge peak within organisations and also with the media around the menopause. This is a really good time, if you wanted to take action and put menopause on your agenda to say, let's plan for what we can do in September or October this year, because that will be a prime time to launch a program or to get the conversation started, if you haven't already.

RJ: Great. Well, thank you, Deborah, that's really useful to give a flag that people can use to get momentum going in their organisation. It's been a really useful discussion to help people start thinking about menopause, how it's affecting their business and how they can help get it on the board agenda through using constructive information to make it relevant to the organisation, as well as the risks associated with not taking action. Thank you very much for your insights today, Deborah.

Women in the boardroom

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