Laura’s story for World Menopause Awareness Day

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Earlier this year, I gathered all the courage I had and stood in front of my colleagues to share my menopause experience. This year, for World Menopause Day, I want to be even bolder – and talk about it with everyone.

Because the sad fact is that, despite there being approximately 3.5 million women aged between 50 and 65 in the workplace, menopause is just not a topic we speak about at work.

My Story

I’m known to be a confident woman, working at a senior level, with a set of strong opinions.  I’ve always spoken my mind, but what the menopause gave me was a whole new set of considerations to deal with.

I anticipated that the physical changes were going to be my greatest challenge, but I soon discovered that there’s a whole range of unpleasant symptoms women need to deal with. Weight gain, hair falling out, headaches, palpitations are just the start. It was the psychological and emotional symptoms that completely caught me off guard, and are still the hardest to deal with.  

Imagine going from a position where you are confident and at the top of your game, certain you can enter any environment and hold your own in the boardroom to suddenly, completely losing your confidence. And I mean completely.

The first time, when you’re mid-presentation or discussion and you lose your thread, with no hope of getting it back (a state commonly known as ‘brain fog’) you might try to scrape by with a self-deprecating gag about being tired. But what about the second, third and fourth time?

Why does no one warn you about this? For me, the experience was utterly devastating.  Memory loss led to loss of confidence. I completely understand why so many working women often pull back from their careers at this point. Why would anyone put themselves in that position?

I feel lucky that I was resilient enough to style some of the physical symptoms out, turning up to meetings with what became known as my ‘menopausal fan’. And what was really interesting was how quickly my new accessory became ‘normal’ – people just accepted it.

For me, the very worst part of the menopause is hormonal anxiety and depression. Someone menopausal said to me recently that they haven’t felt truly happy in a very long time, and that really resonated with me. I can’t remember the last time I felt truly happy the way I did before the menopause.

Trying to break it down fully, I realised I felt less capable, unbelievably fatigued, unmotivated, and lacking in confidence.  I started to search for reasons why I was feeling this way.  I’m a very pragmatic person and have always been able to focus on thing I can control and find a solution for, rather than spending time worrying about things I can’t control. 

This pragmatism completely disappeared. I didn’t even recognise myself. I was embarrassed and I felt incapable. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t seem to ‘pick myself back up’. With the only solution offered to me by my GP being a box of anti-depressants and a course of ‘wellness’ sessions, I started to withdraw from friends, family and work colleagues. It was just easier not to put myself in situations that made me fearful of feeling stupid or incompetent.

What have I learnt?

You need a support system around you, be that friends, partners, colleagues or family. Someone asked me if I recognised that I was changing, and I didn’t. It’s important to realise that your perspective is altered, and understand that others may be seeing you differently.

The impacts linger on, but talking about my menopause experience has helped. In my personal life, having a husband that took the time to understand what I was going through and support me, was so important. He will still recall how difficult it was when he had to point out that I wasn’t being reasonable. He helped me understand how I’d changed and we’ve worked through it together. It took a really long time to get to a point of understanding, and I can appreciate the strong link between menopause and relationship breakdown. The symptoms place a huge amount of stress on a relationship and that’s why awareness is so important.

At work, understanding the psychological effects and how they impact performance and relationships with colleagues has got to be better understood. I’ve been shocked to learn that sometimes the symptoms are so severe that women feel they need to leave their job altogether.

Menopause is a reality for many working women and could be one of the under the radar reasons why we don’t see as many women in the boardroom. It’s clear to me that there just isn’t enough support for women going through menopause. Companies need to provide support for managers to help them understand and reduce barriers that could prevent someone from reaching their full potential.

Getting vulnerable

Mine is a personal story. I’m not a writer and it’s a bit raw, but since I first spoke about it I have shared my experience with friends, family and colleagues. Standing up in Parmenion was the hardest presentation I have ever done.

I haven’t been brave enough to watch it back, but I can remember how it felt. The emotion and the support in the room was overwhelming and I thank all my colleagues for giving me their backing. To those who listened carefully and asked me questions, to those who recognised my need for an anchor in the room to keep me from breaking down, and to those who got themselves vulnerable also by sharing their experiences - thank you. I’m really proud that they felt safe to do it and hugely grateful, as it builds the ultimate trust between us as colleagues.

Getting vulnerable isn’t easy, but I am so glad I did it. The reaction and feedback from my colleagues was incredible. I loved that there were so many men in the room and that so many people reached out to tell me afterwards that they found it inspirational, informative and ‘real.’ Importantly, many of my colleagues said it really helped them understand what either they or their loved ones will go through, and how to support colleagues and employees facing the same thing.

I can talk freely about it now, and this openness between us all has normalised the topic in our business. My own team regularly hear me talk about my menopause and they don’t even blink.  I feel comfortable to say when I’m struggling, and that they understand. 

That’s why it’s so important to talk about. Two years down the menopause road, I don’t care if people feel a bit uncomfortable reading this. A shared understanding needs to be encouraged and cultivated to support a vision for change. Let’s do more.

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