On Menopause Awareness Day, we hear from women who, at the peak of their adland careers, have left or been dismissed from their work due to symptoms of menopause and lack of support.
Women of average menopausal age (45-55) are the fastest-growing demographic in the British workforce, according to the Office of National Statistics. Last year, however, 1 in 10 women between the ages of 44-55 had left work due to menopause symptoms and a lack of available support, according to a study by the Fawcett Society and Channel 4.
A further 14% had to reduce their hours and around 8% said they had not applied for promotions they were eligible for due to symptoms (there are around 48 common symptoms of menopause, while the effects can be felt for up to eight years).
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Abigail* had worked client-side for nearly 20 years when she was appointed to a head of marketing role at a major British retailer. At the time, she says the company had not been performing well and she was brought in to overhaul team engagement. Under her guidance, the team’s engagement scores went from the lowest in the business to the second highest, resulting in her being nominated for a Manager of the Year award.
“Then we had a new marketing manager arrive and, a few weeks later, I started to feel really unwell,” she says. “I was sitting in meetings and would suddenly feel completely lost, then came the brain fog and I knew I wasn’t functioning to the best of my abilities… by then, though, the team was in a cracking position, so at least I wasn’t concerned there.
“I went to the doctor who ran some blood tests and confirmed that I had gone through menopause. For me, it had happened overnight. I was only 37. I went from feeling normal to suddenly not sleeping, feeling overwhelmed by stress and dealing with real confusion, hot flushes and muscle pain – as well as the pain of accepting that now I would no longer be able to have children.”
At the time, Abigail says she discussed her situation with the board-level marketing director – an encounter she describes as “awkward”. The next thing she knew, however, she found herself in a meeting with the same marketing director and the head of HR, where she was handed a compromise agreement and a two-month severance package and was asked to leave the business. The reason cited was “underperformance”.
”I completely lost my confidence after that,” Abigail says. “I was very nervous about staying in the industry or taking on another role after this experience. I lost trust in people ever showing understanding.”
Her experience resulted in her leaving the industry altogether, now preferring to work for herself as a career coach helping marketeers find workplaces that fit with their personal values.
‘I felt no joy in my work any more’
Abigail is not alone in being unfairly dismissed due to menopause symptoms – in the UK, employment tribunals involving menopause are up 44% year-on-year according to a study by the social enterprise Menopause Experts.
However, many women are also opting to remove themselves from the workplace due to feelings of being unable to cope and a lack of support. When Nikki Chamberlain started experiencing extreme confusion and memory loss, she also started to doubt herself – despite a successful, longstanding career client-side.
“I had post-it notes all over my laptop, so you could barely see my screen because I was unable to remember anything unless it was written down,” she says. “I started to doubt my abilities so much that I was scared I would lose my job. In the end I thought, well if they’re going to fire me anyway I might as well just leave. I felt no joy in my work any more.”
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Nikki says that, initially, she didn’t even make the connection between the symptoms she was experiencing and menopause (a survey by GenM found that over half of women can’t name more than three of menopause’s 48 most common symptoms), but when she did bring it up with her manager she “didn’t receive a great reception”.
She says this reaction only confirmed her fears that, in a male-dominated workplace, going through menopause would only open her up to criticism. “I thought people would question whether I was too old to be doing what I was doing, that I would be sidelined and viewed negatively.” As a result, she decided to retrain as a health coach.
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Despite some damning statistics, conversations around menopause in the workplace – particularly in the creative industries – have picked up pace. Last year, Channel 4 and sports, fitness and wellness creative agency Dark Horses launched open-source menopause policies in the hopes of reducing taboos and offering agencies actionable tips on how to support people going through the change. While Dark Horses’ co-founder Melissa Robertson knows of some agencies that have taken up the policy, The Drum’s recent Agency Wellbeing Survey found that 88% of UK agencies still have no designated menopause policy.
Robertson tells us: “I have to imagine the lack of progress is down to procrastination or some form of politics. At the board level, I can imagine the debates saying ‘well if we have a menopause policy, don’t we have to have a miscarriage policy and a mental health policy and so on?’ To that I say, put one in place and just let the others snowball.”
‘It’s a man’s world’
Melissa MacGowan, the founder of menopause education network Meno Collective, says there’s no playbook when it comes to solving the issue of menopause in the workplace. “Some people will say policy is not the way to go, because it can lead to negative stereotyping. I believe it should be about awareness first. Hopefully, in today’s world, companies have good flexibility and that is the perfect place to start.”
Meno Collective offers workplace training and resources to help destigmatize the conversation around menopause. MacGowan adds: “By creating space for colleagues and their managers to discuss, there are a number of benefits to be gained. Retaining talent, taking a step towards genuine inclusion and managing employer brand and reputation and risk being just some of them.”
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As the animosity against people experiencing menopausal symptoms is pushing predominantly women out of the workforce, this is inevitably bad for business. “People can’t afford to lose talent,” says MacGowan. “They can’t afford legal bills to fight discrimination cases, so we have to connect it and say it’s damaging companies’ bottom lines.”
Despite the case for genuine inclusion and the wellbeing of women in adland, MacGowan says the business case is likely to be the most compelling to business leaders when it comes to accommodating menopause at work. “It’s a man’s world, so I guess we have to start speaking their language.”
*Name changed to protect anonymity.
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