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Menopause is something that affects every single one of us whether we’re experiencing it ourselves or know someone who is. With menopausal women being the fastest growing workforce demographic, business leaders need to make a change; to build awareness of the impact and better understand how to support and empower valuable employees and colleagues.

At our 11th Women in BioPharma Leadership event, our WBL network gathered to explore this topic, with the overwhelming sentiment during the event being one of understanding, solidarity and the need to take action: for self, for the collective and for the future.

We were joined by Tina Blackhouse, General Manager and Katja Lundell, Global Senior Director, from Theramex, a dedicated women’s health company. Together they educated and inspired us, with startling facts about the inequality of women’s health, and some personal stories that sounded all too familiar.

The forgotten 51%

Katja highlighted the poor understanding of women’s health throughout history and, although we no longer attribute ‘hysteria’ to the ‘wondering womb’ and we know that smelling salts are no longer the cure-all for women’s diseases we once thought, a lack of awareness still remains.

For a life changing event that 51% of the population go through, that also affects the remaining 49% in some way, there is surprisingly little funding and research into menopause. Especially when compared to the burden of disease – menopause symptoms make it difficult for many women to cope at work, which can lead to women either struggling through, or leaving the workforce prematurely. Tina told us that 40% of menopausal women admit that the difficulties of working with menopause symptoms make them consider giving up work.

Is there still a stigma surrounding menopause?

Although the menopause is an important and emotional topic, the word itself is still stigmatised, and often conjures images of much older women (“Surely I am too young to start menopause?”). This persists, despite more and more conversations, like this one, public figures talking openly about their experiences, like in the Davina documentary and the work of MP Caroline Nokes with the Women and Equalities Committee.

Tina appealed to our sense of duty to future generations and urged us not to shy away from talking about menopause, or making jokes about it; which might help in the moment, but does us all a disservice in the long run as it causes women to suffer in silence and minimises their difficulties. If we are not talking about this, raising awareness and modifying our approach, then nothing changes.

During discussions at the event, WBL members wondered if it might be time to rebrand the menopause. This would help us all to feel less embarrassed and afraid of talking about it, to speak up for what we need and to support the needs of others.

It’s not just about hot flushes

Tina spoke of the time she questioned her ability to work and considered resigning when she thought she had early onset dementia – she never considered it was menopause, because she had never had a hot flush. Menopause can present in many different ways, with most symptoms not specific to menopause alone, making it quite hard to recognise while still having periods (which is very common during perimenopause). This lack of awareness about menopause and its symptoms means women may not see their GP. Undiagnosed means untreated, which means women are not getting the support they need.

You can empower yourself to better support your teams, your colleagues, and yourself, by looking at the symptoms to build your own understanding and empathy as a leader.

What can I do to drive change for my team in our workplace? 

We must be brave, talk about it, share our stories and have conversations – with younger people, our bosses, our team, our friends and our colleagues – irrespective of whether they are women or men.

As someone that has the power to make a difference, you should not only have the conversations, but also foster an environment that enables others to feel empowered enough to start a conversation themselves. Your team must feel that they have a safe space to express their needs and ask for support. As a leader, you can make a big difference to someone’s work life, productivity and happiness by just listening to their challenges and working together to find a solution.

Tina and Katja suggest that a solution might be as simple as facilitating flexible work arrangements, to allow:

  • Avoiding travel on packed and hot public transport during peak times,
  • Extra breaks and rest periods if needed
  • Attending doctors’ appointments and to self-care
  • Flexible working from home

Tina and Katja also recommended that we, as leaders, take a lead in reviewing workplace policies to ensure they are inclusive of, and accommodating for women experiencing menopause, such as sick leave, flexible working and dress code policies. Many workplaces are also introducing specific menopause policies, which is something you might want to consider, or, if this sits with someone else, suggesting, for maximum impact.

It is also well within your power to be proactive and encourage your team and colleagues to seek additional support when needed, through services like employee assistance programs, counselling services, or menopause resources that may be available through your health insurance providers. You can also share these helpful resources, that were recommended by Tina:

Conversation is the first step

It is through conversation that we will begin to raise awareness and start driving change. By identifying what your team needs and finding solutions that will accommodate the challenges navigating menopause at work can bring, you can improve retention rates whilst helping your people remain productive, happy and fulfilled. It is fully within your power to positively impact and empower your people, your team and your organisation by continuing the conversation and speaking up.

As Winston Churchill said “I never worry about action, but only inaction”.

The Women in Biopharma Leadership network was founded in 2018 by Cormis and Links Life Sciences, with the specific purpose of bringing together the voices of like-minded senior women in the Pharma and BioTech industries.

To find out about our future events or connect with the WBL network, please head to our LinkedIn group.

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