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An interview with Deborah Garlick, CEO of Henpicked: Menopause in the Workplace

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Deborah Garlick is CEO of Henpicked: Menopause in the Workplace, one of the UK’s largest, fastest growing communities for women and the author of Menopause: The Change for the Better.

She sat down with BIE Research Director and ED&I Lead, Eoin Canty, to discuss her enterprising work helping organisations UK-wide become menopause-friendly, how perceptions have changed over that time, the work still to be done, and some best practices for inclusive companies to follow.

How did you start working in the area of menopause?

Focusing on menopause is not something I ever thought I would do. It was a most unusual change in my career. My background is in corporate, with decades spent in large organisations like E.ON and Boots. In 2013, I launched Henpicked, a website for women who weren’t born yesterday, with some of my colleagues from Boots.

Back then, whenever we’d publish anything about menopause we’d see our traffic spike. Out of curiosity, we pulled the community together and asked them questions about menopause. We wanted to know what they wanted to know. And it was a lot.

Back then, menopause was one of those taboo subjects, and the knowledge just wasn’t there. We didn’t know the ages, stages, and symptoms of menopause. That’s how it all began for me – I started working in this area because of the community.

I thought that employers should be interested in this topic. After all, menopause can get in the way of wellbeing and D&I. So I thought they should know the facts. That’s what led me to launch Henpicked: Menopause in the Workplace in 2016. We offer training for companies looking to improve their offerings for their employees, bring about cultural change, and develop best policies and practices.

What has the reception been like from companies?

 It’s been really encouraging. I organised the first Menopause in the Workplace conference in 2016. It was the first one worldwide and we managed to attract big businesses. They came in wondering what they were doing there, but they left thinking that this was an issue they should do something about. And many of the companies that came to that first conference are still out there pioneering, making change and encouraging others to join them. They’re huge allies of menopause. Today we’re in contact with thousands of employers both the public and private sectors, supporting them, and helping them support others.

More and more companies are waking up to the need to support their employees through this life stage, the effects of which can impact men as well as women In fact, there are four key reasons companies should and do take action on menopause:

  • Demographics: “Women of menopausal age are the fastest growing group in the workforce and are staying in work for longer than ever before,” to quote the House of Commons Committee report on Menopause and the Workplace.
  • The business case: Losing employees due to menopause can cost organisations significant amounts, according to Oxford Economics – it’s a big ticket financial item, and one that’s particularly challenging in today’s competitive talent market.
  • The legal case: Employment tribunals concerning menopause are on the rise. Aside from the costs, the reputational damage can be severe. The only way to win a tribunal is to not find yourself there.
  • Social responsibility: Retaining women in the workplace is the right thing to do and a sign of good leadership; losing women because you can’t support them through a biological event is not.

So you’ve seen a dramatic shift in perceptions of the menopause since you started work in this area?

Yes, but I think it’s important to say that we’re on a journey when it comes to menopause. Things are improving, but we’re not where we want to be yet. Back in 2016, we couldn’t find a company policy on menopause in the UK. In 2019, the CIPD said 1 in 10 employers were taking action, and this year it’s more like 3 in 10. It’s remarkable progress in a short amount of time.

That being said, even though things are better, there are still individuals out there who feel vulnerable and disadvantaged in the workplace during menopause. Broaching this topic can be a real struggle. It’s been a taboo subject, and it’s still sensitive. But the more you talk about it, the more people join in, and the more normal the conversation becomes.

The issue is that it’s hard to start a conversation when you don’t know what’s going on – I know that from experience. If someone had looked at what I was experiencing and diagnosed me from the get-go, it would have saved me a lot of struggling and spared me from going through what was one of the worst years of my life.

What would you advise women who are unsure about whether they’re experiencing menopause?

I’d encourage them to keep a diary of their symptoms, whether physical or psychological, and track how they feel. It can be therapeutic to do, as well as deeply beneficial, because it gives you a clearer picture of what’s going on for you. And read up on menopause – it might be that, or it might not, but having the information and understanding what’s going on for you allows you to have a different conversation with your healthcare practitioner. And getting a diagnosis allows you to have a real, productive conversation with your employer about the support you might require.

What steps can employers take to provide menopause support?

Firstly, the thing to appreciate is that menopause is not a minority issue. Women make up almost 51% of the overall population, and the female employment rate is 72% in the UK as of December 2021. Menopause is a biological fact for women, so it’s an issue that impacts a huge number of people, either directly or through their relationships.

Having laid those foundations, there are several key steps employers can take.

  • Make cultural change: Create an environment where people feel comfortable to say the word “menopause” without fear and where it’s not unusual to hear it spoken. Perhaps encourage your senior leaders to share their stories because, by doing that, you will open up the permissions across the organisation.
  • Communicate openly: And be visible about it. Communicate on World Menopause Day, for example. Or International’s Women’s Day or Women’s Health Week. Share information on your internal systems about menopause symptoms and support. Break down the barriers that make things difficult, and keep in mind that some people might not want to talk about it. And don’t think it’s enough to talk about it once and you’ll change hearts and minds. It’s a journey you’re taking people on.
  • Set up training: People aren’t born with information. Your line managers or HR staff might not know more than anyone else, but they are your frontline staff when it comes to helping employees who are experiencing menopause. So train them up and help them help others.
  • Create policies and guidance documents: They’re a signpost that you are committed to helping people, and they will outline exactly how you can help them.
  • Ask questions: It’s simple, but powerful. Ask your menopausal employees what is getting in their way at work. Perhaps it’ll be the fabric of their uniforms making their hot flushes worse, or perhaps it’s the shift patterns. You won’t know unless you ask. Ask them what will help them be their best, and then do your best to help them.
  • Look into getting accredited: Send a message to your current and future employees that you are committed to being an menopause friendly employer with the Menopause Friendly accreditation. It’s the kitemark of excellence. 
  • You can assess whether you have the right awareness, education and support in place by using this checklist.

What do you hope happens next?

I’d love to see more employers putting “menopause friendly” in their job ads, like the Queen Elizabeth Hospital Kings Lynn did in 2021. It sends such an important message. And, after all, in today’s market, with the shrinking talent pool, if you were a female candidate shopping around, which job would you go for? The one silent on menopause, or the one that reassures you that you will be supported through that major life event that can happen to women, sometimes as early as their 20s and 30s?

One day, we’ll get to a point where we know about the symptoms of menopause, we know what to do to support people through it, and we’ll just do it. It won’t disrupt careers or lives anymore. We’re not there yet, but every time I see the statistics and I see the progress we’re making, I think it’s a happy day.

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