Breaking the silence around the menopause
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“Google for the menopause”: this is how Heather Jackson and Sam Simister, longtime friends, describe Gen M. They founded the one-stop resource site last year after difficult experiences dealing with symptoms of the menopause — and finding the existing online advice was uninspiring.
Ms Simister, now 54, says she was “was woefully unprepared” when she first started to suffer debilitating symptoms, such as severe anxiety. At that time the innovation research and development director at Innocent Drinks, the smoothie maker, didn’t recognise she was perimenopausal — the often years-long transition to menopause. “I knew I wasn’t myself, but I didn’t talk to anyone about it because I didn’t know what was happening to me,” she says. “I remember not being able to leave the house on one or two occasions.”
Meanwhile, Ms Jackson, 52, was blindsided by the symptoms of perimenopause while taking a year out in 2018/19 after she sold her business, An Inspirational Journey, a leadership company that supports women. Alongside this she had developed The Women’s Business Forum, which is where she met Ms Simister and they became friends.
Ms Jackson’s symptoms included severe brain fog: “I was on a board and I couldn’t even remember the name of the CEO in front of me.” After six months of repeated visits to the GP with no diagnosis, she was prescribed antidepressants. It was only when Ms Simister suggested that Ms Jackson could be perimenopausal that things became clearer.
“I spent hours on the internet searching out solutions, searching out where I could go and it was such a desperate, soul destroying search,” Ms Jackson recalls. By 2025, 1bn women worldwide will be in menopause, making it a huge potential audience. “We didn’t even do the research before deciding to set up Gen M,” Ms Simister says. “But our intuition has been backed up by the stats.” A report they conducted found that 88 per cent of women think workplaces should be better set up to support women with the menopause.
Gen M, currently funded by its co-founders with the hope of eventually allocating a percentage of any profits to a chosen charity, is for menopausal women but also those who want to know more and support a colleague, partner or parent. Gen M also provides information on nutrition, beauty, femtech and clothing. And it aims to broaden the conversation about menopause in the workplace, providing guidance to help employers create a culture where women can be open.
According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, women over 50 are now the fastest-growing segment of the workforce, but about 14m working days are lost in the UK each year to the menopause.
Much of the problem in the workplace, Ms Simister says, is about how to start talking. “It’s got to start with leaders and maybe one or two individuals being brave and starting that conversation, because that movement does need to come from somewhere and then hopefully it will grow organically,” she says.
At Innocent, after encouragement from its CEO, Douglas Lamont, Ms Simister wrote to staff about Gen M and encouraged women to start talking. “The feedback has been incredible,” she says. “But most interestingly, the men . . . I’ve had so many write to me also, to say thank you for enabling me to start a conversation with my girlfriend, my wife, my mum.”
Innocent has launched an informal women’s health forum and will start to equip managers with information so that they can get comfortable with the issue. “What has to be faced is that for some women, for whom the symptoms are really bad, they may have one or two days in a month where they just feel really poorly and they don’t feel themselves, and they just need to know that they can be given a bit of space.”
The pandemic has influenced the way many organisations perceive flexible working, and it is likely to become the norm, rather than just a perk. But Ms Jackson and Ms Simister believe that improving workplaces for menopausal women quickly and efficiently requires accountability not only from HR departments but all employees.
“Awareness, education and knowledge sharing is essential for that to happen,” Ms Jackson says. “By sharing resources, tools and information to educate the wider workplace on the menopause, employers can create a culture that understands, recognises and supports the needs of their employees — both at work or working from home.”
Employers taking the issue seriously include EY, the professional services firm, and Santander. Alison Martin-Campbell, a secretary at EY who was also badly affected by the menopause, heads the consultancy’s 40+ network, an informal group that she created to help employees with age-related issues. Meanwhile, Santander has rolled out an initiative to provide practical support and advice to those members of its female workforce of menopausal age.
Gen M’s report found that those at a high point of their career when entering the perimenopause were significantly unprepared (90 per cent), while 83 per cent knew almost nothing about it and 55 per cent said it made them feel invisible.
Gen M intends to work with brands to give approval to useful products targeted at older women so consumers can easily find them. The longstanding stigma and silence around the menopause has had profound effects in terms of the choice of products — and how they are marketed.
Both founders say they have gone into stores in search of products — from supplements to cooling, sweat wicking sleepwear — and found them hidden away or non-existent.
The site has already had nods of approval from high-profile women. Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon tweeted that Gen M was the best menopause site. “This is great for us,” Ms Jackson says. But what is more important is that “it was like a coming out: ‘I am the generation menopause’.”
But more women, especially in the corporate world, need to be talking about the menopause. “We want women to take control of [it], not have [it] control them,” Ms Jackson says. She stresses that the menopause should not be feared. Rather, “it’s about putting it on the radar of workplaces,” she says.