Let’s talk about the menopause at work

After struggling with symptoms, a nurse chief executive is promoting a culture of openness  

After struggling with symptoms, a nurse chief executive is promoting a culture of openness  

Picture: iStock

For too long, we have been ignoring one of the biggest issues that affects women, particularly in the workplace – the menopause.

The NHS workforce is 77% female, and at Solent NHS Trust the figure is nearer 80%. Women are leaving the NHS due to their experience of menopause at work, so supporting people through this life stage is something that I, as trust chief executive, am passionate about.

Enabling our incredibly skilled people to be at their best at work will help us retain them.

Reticence to talk about the menopause

I trained as a nurse in the Royal Navy, and during my 16 years of service we never spoke about the menopause and how it can affect daily life. Even now, I feel that people find it difficult to talk about what the menopause means to them.

We need to break the taboo and empower people to discuss their experiences, which will hopefully enable flexibility in the workplace, as well as changing people’s work environment and how support is provided.

‘An ongoing worry for me was how my colleagues would perceive my symptoms’

Nurses going through the menopause face particular challenges. They are on the go, often for long periods of time and sometimes work in very hot environments. They are also compassionate and  face emotional situations at work, which can have a significant physiological impact on them. 

This combination of factors means that nurses require unique, supportive solutions, enabling us to bring our whole selves to work, while delivering great care.

My menopause symptoms manifested themselves over time

For me, the menopause happened slowly, and, despite experiencing many physical symptoms, I didn’t at first realise they were menopausal. 

I struggled a lot with insomnia and feeling physically unwell in meetings; there is nothing worse than being with people and experiencing a hot flush! I also found it more difficult to retain large amounts of information.

An ongoing worry for me was how my colleagues would perceive my symptoms. But when I shared what I was going through, I found that many other staff members were experiencing the same thing.

Starting a trust-wide discussion about the menopause

Our culture at Solent is really open. I believe people feel able to bring their whole self to work, and we speak a lot about mental well-being and seeking support.

But historically, I don’t think the menopause has been something we have talked about specifically, trust-wide, and we want to change that.

We held our first menopause event at the beginning of October, and more are planned. The event provided a safe space for candid conversation, and there was an overwhelming feeling of relief and positivity. Many of those who attended are now seeking further support.

To anyone going through the menopause, I strongly recommend you talk with people around you, including men, to start the conversation. I think you’d be surprised at how responsive people can be.

Women experience the menopause in different ways, and not everyone goes through it at the same stage of life. But developing an understanding about how to age well will improve the work environment.

Sharing our menopause strategy with other organisations

In our last staff survey, more than 90% of respondents said the trust takes positive action on health and well-being. We are at the beginning of developing our menopause policy and strategy, which is being informed by colleagues, but we are always happy to share what we are doing with like-minded trusts.

We would happily talk with other organisations about what we are putting in place to support staff during the menopause, and with employee health and well-being more generally.

Sue Harriman is chief executive of Solent NHS Trust