Today is World Menopause Day! Sarah Connor from Menopause Over Martinis* talks to us about her role in going around businesses to help start conversations around menopause in the workplace – and what changes women want in the workplace to support them.
At Capsule, we’ve written a lot of stories about women at work. We’ve noticed that many of these topics are very much intertwined: pushing back against hustle culture, why perpetual striving might not make us happier, working-mum guilt, letting go of perfectionism, battling burnout, juggling work with the mental load and SO many more.
Then we got to wondering about what working women really want. As in, what do we actually want – rather than what are we ‘meant’ to want. Also, are there things that we don’t yet know we want, but might realise we want if we find out more? Are there more things we could ask our employers for? And what changes might we want to see in the workplace?
Hi again Sarah! I know you facilitate discussions around menopause in workplaces. Are these virtual or in person?
Eighty-five percent have been virtual so far. But, for instance, when I spoke to Air New Zealand, it was in person. Most conferences are in person. I’m doing a hybrid event for a government ministry this week, so I’ll be in the room with some people, and others will join via Teams or Zoom.
‘It’s about managers and workmates being good humans. It’s about feeling seen and heard.’
If it’s a large organisation with multiple offices or worksites across the country, my talks tend to be virtual to be as inclusive, equitable and efficient as possible.
What are your sessions like?
A one-hour session is usually broken into two parts. The first half is me in conversation with the host, who is someone from the organisation. I start by sharing some basic facts about menopause that are good for everyone to know regardless of their age, gender, or job. I talk about how menopause impacts people differently and for how long, what the symptoms are, what are some possible solutions, and what are the lifestyle changes people can make.
I talk about the many free resources available and where to get support – your GP, or seeing a specialist if you need to. I also share my experience of landing in perimenopause without knowing what it was, and how that negatively impacted my health over too many months. Then I talk about the useful and the unhelpful things people said and did.
What were some unhelpful things people said?
Some said I was too young to go through menopause at 46, when in fact 40 or 45 through to 55 is typical. Some dismissed or minimised my symptoms, suggesting it must be stress. Some said I didn’t need HRT [hormone replacement therapy]. Some said my talking about perimenopause openly could backfire with my work [opportunities].
What is the second half of your sessions?
That’s for people joining me on the screen or in the room; they can ask questions, make comments, or share their experiences.
Yes. I talk about what managers, leaders and colleagues can do to help. There are many ways, and they don’t take a lot of time or money. The first thing is to get used to saying the word menopause out loud.
Yes, there are moments when you need to have a private conversation about menopause, but let’s normalise it by saying the word out loud, not behind a hand or in a whisper. It’s time to lose the shame and embarrassment around it.
Gosh, how are we living in a world where we feel like we can’t say the M word! Is it a taboo thing around women’s bodies?
Totally, there’s still a lot of sexism and ageism, plus a lack of research, and education about menopause.
How do men in your sessions respond?
I’ve had amazing feedback from men. They want to do the right thing at home and work but don’t necessarily know how. Some feel like it’s not their place to bring it up, or worry they’ll say the wrong thing.
But I think it’s all part of the bigger issue: that too many people aren’t comfortable talking about menopause. Once we get used to saying the word, we can normalise conversations about it, which can make a huge difference. One woman announces in her workplace [meetings] if she’s having a ‘menopause moment’. She pauses, gets a glass of cold water, and keeps going.
Rather than having to rush out on the pretext of going to the toilet!
Yeah, or rather than getting flustered because you feel you need to hide symptoms, which can increase anxiety around it. You’re dripping with sweat under your clothing, and thinking everyone’s looking at you, even though they’re not.
Imagine if you could say ‘I’m having a hot flush’ or ‘I’m having a Menopause Moment’! After normalising discussion of it, the second thing is to ‘keep it positive’. There’s still negativity, derogatory comments, eye-rolling, and sighing in response to [someone going through] menopause.
Yep. One woman in a workplace [session] said ‘I’d like everyone to quit the bad jokes and eye-rolling. If I’m having a hot flush, maybe someone can get me a glass of cold water, or if I forget a word mid-sentence, maybe just let me pause, or help me get through that sentence or that moment’.
Asking for something like that can be challenging though because you want to be seen as competent and capable.
Does that mean some people are hesitant to talk openly during your sessions?
Most people are really open, but some have used the chat function during virtual events, or made a comment or asked a question anonymously, because they’re not ready to discuss their situation with others. Fair enough too. Because menopause involves mental and physical changes, one person told me that ‘talking about it at work could backfire and make people think I can’t do my job’.
But actually they might find their employer or manager supportive, particularly following a session with you?
Exactly. I talked to a senior exec once whose perimenopausal symptoms saw her come close to quitting her job. I encouraged her to talk to her manager and team, which she eventually did, and they were very supportive.
She not only got the help she needed from a menopause specialist, and is now performing as well as ever, but her team shared some of their own health and life challenges – and she could help support them!
Are younger people at sessions interested in talking about it?
Most younger people are curious about it because they want to know what to expect, and knowledge is power. Some are keen because their mum, manager, colleague or friend is experiencing menopause.
To make changes, do workplaces usually put a new policy or process in place, or is it more informal?
It depends. Some might add menopause information and support to an existing policy or guideline. Others decide to start from scratch, look at guidelines and toolkits already out there, and amend that to suit their own workplace.
With employers stepping up like this, do you think it’s about them being altruistic – or is it pragmatic, wanting to attract and keep staff?
It’s a mix. They want to proactively support the wellbeing of their people because when employees feel more supported, they do a better job and stay [in the job] longer. It’s about diversity and inclusion, too. Also, it can reduce absenteeism if people [experiencing menopausal symptoms] feel supported enough to come to work, rather than call in sick.
Attraction and retention are key. Women in midlife have valuable skills and knowledge. If a workplace is known for providing support in this area, they’re more likely to attract people in midlife.
What do women tell you they want?
There’s quite a lot of pseudo-science and snake oil out there. So women are desperate to access credible information from credible sources, including books and websites like the Australasian Menopause Society. We need to ensure those evidence-based and practical resources are accessible.
What do women say they want within their workplaces?
Flexibility. Having an understanding, well-informed manager is super important. So you might say, ‘it’s one of those days, can we adjust something?’.
That might be starting your workday later and finishing later if you haven’t slept well for too many nights, extending a deadline, postponing a meeting, teaming up with someone else on a project, or working from home that day. And being able to go to [menopause-related] appointments without question.
What else can help at work?
Many small things can make big differences. Having meetings outside in the fresh air sometimes. Having shorter meetings, or more meeting breaks.
If you have to leave a meeting frequently, perhaps because of hot flushes or flooding [really heavy periods], you could miss out on important things. Something else: air-con not being too hot, having a desk fan or a really cold water-cooler.
Asking for reasonable adjustments is, well, reasonable, right?
It’s about managers and workmates being good humans. It’s about feeling seen and heard. And if someone [like a manager] can’t support you directly, you could ask to speak to a people and culture person, or HR person, ask if there’s someone at work who knows about this area, or ask to access the EAP [Employee Assistance Program, which offers free, solution-focused counselling].
Generally it’s about everyone being respectful of what you’re going through – not just your manager but your workmates too. Maybe one of them is going through it too – and it counts for so much to know you’re not the only one.
I also imagine it’s exhausting to pretend you’re fine when you’re not?
Yes. Simply talking about it can actually have a big impact on how people feel and experience symptoms. If you’re having hot flushes a lot, but pretending you’re not – or if you’re feeling anxious but feel you can’t tell anyone that – well, that makes everything worse.
Your partner has been supportive of your consulting work?
Totally. Initially we didn’t think my idea would go past our dining table, but before long he said I should go global. Which I accidentally did when I spoke to Xero which has offices all over the world!
Any tips for partners of people experiencing perimenopause?
Learn about the range of symptoms, because there are 30- to 40-plus symptoms that are physical, emotional, psychological, cognitive. Also, it’s always okay to ask ‘are you okay’ and ‘is there anything I can do to help’, rather than making assumptions or being hesitant about saying the wrong thing.
How a partner might help could be just listening or giving an extra hug, through to offering to take something off your plate or give you time to walk around the block.
Is seeing workplaces make changes rewarding for you?
It’s incredibly satisfying. Four years ago, I couldn’t have imagined what I’d be doing now. I like being a writer behind my laptop, so I never imagined stepping up to do something like this. But I feel so passionately about it because of my own experience.
What’s your ultimate vision?
A world where everybody grows up knowing enough about what menopause is, so that when they get to that stage of life, they feel informed, understood and supported. If they need information, they can access it. If they need understanding, they know who to talk to. If they need support, they know who to go to, whether that’s family, a friend, a GP, a specialist, a manager, a workmate.
So, support is needed at home, work and in the community. If that happens, I won’t need to do this job, and I’ll be happy about why that is!