Deborah Garlick talks to Beena Nadeem about her work to promote greater understanding about the impact of the menopause in the workplace.
Up until four years ago, if you had asked any UK employer whether they had a menopause policy in place, you would have been met with a blank stare. In stark contrast to maternity policies, menopause has generally hung around offices like an amorphous dark cloud.
But things have had to change. The workforce is ageing. And this is largely a female phenomenon: menopausal women are the fastest-growing workforce in the UK with around 4.4 million women aged 50-64 in work, a figure which has risen by a third in the last decade.
Even though these women are the future workforce, they’re not having an easy time of it. A recent report by Health & Her found that 370,000 women had left work or were considering leaving because they were struggling to deal with the symptoms of the menopause while at work. Meanwhile many women said a lack of support at work was a problem.
One woman who’s putting in a Herculean effort to getting this addressed and has created a seismic change in the attitudes and actions of employers is author and founder of support organisation Henpicked Deborah Garlick [pictured].
She says: “We are an ageing population and women are living longer and, of course, employers need these women at work as the talent pool is ever-shrinking. There are fewer school leavers than ever before and fewer vacancies; it’s competitive to find the right person for the job.
“A lot of employers are looking at menopause as part of their retention strategy. We know that one in four women are considering leaving work because of their menopause – we want that to change.”
Garlick and her team have managed to approach employers who had zero awareness of how to support their female staff going through the menopause to get them to engage with the issues.
This month alone, the organisation has engaged more than 1,000 employers, which are now undertaking a whole raft of support, training, guidance and conversations around menopause. But it wasn’t always like this.
“When I first started looking into this four years ago to help create a culture of helping women understand more about menopause through their employers – people thought I’d lost the plot,” says Garlick.
“I started with HR directors to find out if anyone had a menopause policy and it was a resounding ‘no’.”
The ones who agreed to look into it spurred her on to launch the first-ever menopause workplace conference three years ago.
Since then the likes of E.On, Seven Trent, many universities, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons, HSBC to the NHS are getting on board with menopause training, strategies, conversations and support. Tomorrow is World Menopause Day and WH Smith will be launching its Menopause Guidelines for employees and managers.
A year ago, says Garlick, a survey undertaken by the TUC, the University of Leicester, University of Bristol and Open University found that only one in 10 organisations had something around menopause in place.
Today, thanks to Garlick and her team, that figure is closer to three in 10. “Our teams are running 51 menopause sessions this month alone; a bit of a coincidence as 51 is the average menopause age,” she says, adding: “Four years ago there was nothing. It’s time all employers did this.”
For now, it’s going pretty well. “Even male-dominated train operators dominated South Eastern have launched their guidance documents and ran four days of line manager training a couple of weeks ago,” says Garlick, adding that they do a lot to not only engage women but men too.
Meanwhile, the likes of Sainsbury’s has delivered three menopause sessions this month and have launched online support groups, training kits and a company-wide ‘YamJam’ –where employees can interact directly with senior staff without any hierarchal constraints – to around 195,000 employees.
“Last week HSBC’s First Direct offices ran menopause sessions and they, along with Morrisons will host our next conference,” Garlick says.
Interestingly, the public sector is particularly interested in menopause training and policies. “A very high percentage of nursing staff are menopausal women. We are an ageing population: there are increased needs to keep our nurses fit and well in work; a compelling reason why the NHS is looking at this – they know they will have a number of nurses leaving and they know they have to keep nurses in work, so it’s an interesting time,” says Garlick, adding: “The same is true of secondary school teachers who also have a very high proportion of menopausal women.”
Despite increasing changes with employers sweeping through HR departments and down to staff, women themselves are still hesitant to talk about menopause.
“In a society that reveres beauty and youth, the menopause can feel like some kind of deadline,” says Garlick, so when it comes to work, “many women don’t want to make a big deal about it for fear of being discriminated against or passed over for promotion or feeling they’re not up to the job anymore”.
However, she knows from women who have responded to information posted on the Henpicked site, that “they were struggling and wanting to know where to go for help”.
“We make it easy to demystify it and we provide six key suggestions for them to take back with them and look at their organisations. If they need support or help or information, we’re there: we take away the barriers to doing this.”
The issue of menopause leave has been raised by Conservative MP Rachel Maclean, who was the first to speak out about it in the House of Commons and wants to see women being able to have time off or change work patterns when they need relief from the more severe symptoms of menopause.
For Garlick, it’s a subject to be broached with some caution. “I certainly wouldn’t want to see mandatory time off for menopause as that would provoke a backlash within some organisations and with some line managers,” she says.
“Many women will need small changes, time off for doctors’ appointments and maybe extra support when their symptoms are heightened at a certain time,” she says. “We’re finding women are very capable and very stoic and can get on with things and don’t need an awful lot more.
“Some [employers] do provide that support when they have had the training and it’s reassuring that it’s small changes and not dramatic ones that are often needed – I do not want to spook anyone by saying women have to have mandatory time off.”
The work of Garlick, her team and others out there shows that menopause policies and training are being embraced by employers nationwide. As she puts it: “If we get this right, everything will be in place for our daughters and for the generation after them.”
*Deborah Garlick’s book, Henpicked: Menopause A Change for the Better is available on Amazon.