‘I quit work because menopause made me feel like I had early onset dementia’

Industries across the board must introduce mandatory guidance on menopause or women will continue to be locked out of the workplace, campaigners and victims have said.

Lauren Chiren, 54, left her job as head of transformation at a major financial services company after experiencing menopause so severe she thought she had early onset dementia.

“I remember sitting in one meeting, and my throat was so tight with anxiety. I had heart palpitations, and felt like my heart was going to burst out of my chest. I’d often run to the bathroom in floods of uncontrollable tears – with my make-up bag – so then I could go back to work as normal”.

Ms Chiren had been head-hunted twice while at the company and was regarded as a “top performer”, but after an “awkward conversation” with her boss, she made the decision to leave.

“He was really kind, and coming from a place of concern. He reached out to me from a welfare point of view, but I was so paranoid, and second guessing everyone around me. I know there was no performance issue, my team were consistently delivering.

“I went to the doctor, expecting them to tell me I had early onset dementia, and that my days of making my own decisions were numbered. I was in my early forties, and [the doctor] told me it was menopause. I just decided I would rather leave [the job] than explain, and have everyone think I was really weak and vulnerable.

Lauren Chiren, 54, left her job at a major financial services company after experiencing menopause so severe she thought she had early onset dementia (Photo: Supplied)
Lauren Chiren, 54, left her job at a major financial services company after experiencing menopause so severe she thought she had early onset dementia (Photo: Supplied)

“For my generation, we didn’t grow up with our parents or schools telling us anything about this. I couldn’t believe that as a relatively well-read woman, I had no idea about perimenopause, menopause – anything like that.”

As a result of her experiences, Ms Chiren launched Women of a Certain Age, an organisation dedicated to raising awareness of menopause and how to normalise conversations about it in the workplace.

She added: “We need to educate staff, friends, family about menopause and how they can support. No two people will experience menopause in the same way, and I’m open to anything that helps open up that conversation.”

It comes as NHS England has introduced measures to offer flexible working for women going through menopause.

NHS chief executive, Amanda Pritchard, announced the national guidance yesterday at the Confederation of Business Industry’s annual conference, calling for other employers to follow suit and “break the taboos”.

She said she wants the 260,000 NHS staff aged between 45 and 55 to “have access to the right support to stay in and thrive at work”, including flexible working, fans to help control temperature, cooler uniform and staff training “across the board”.

“This is not just a matter of respect for our staff, but an investment in our workforce, future sustainability and the quality of patient care,” she said.

Becky Kearns, 36, was in her late 20s when she was diagnosed with premature ovarian insufficiency, which impacted her fertility and caused her to go through early onset menopause.

Without workplace guidance in place, she was unaware what she was entitled to in terms of flexibility or adjustments, particularly for someone going through menopause at a younger age.

She told i: “I had this shocking news when I was 28. I was launched into this fertility journey while still trying to navigate through hot flushes and I was feeling very hormonal and anxious.

Ms Kearns, pictured with her daughters, felt ‘less of a woman’ when she went through early onset menopause (Photo: Supplied)

“I personally wouldn’t have felt comfortable saying ‘I need adjustments in place because I’m struggling with this’, because I wouldn’t have felt that my employer recognised that menopause could happen to somebody before the age of around 45.

“It’s really important that the conversation around early menopause is included in this as well, because I think people can feel even more isolated.”

She added: “I felt old before my time, I felt less of a woman and I think it had a real impact on my identity.”

While going through menopause, Ms Kearns worked at a corporate HR organisation, but she has since co-founded Fertility Matters at Work – a company aiming to raise awareness of how fertility issues affect employees and employers.

She said publication of the NHS guidance will give employees the confidence to confront their employers about menopause and seek support, and it will also give employers a resource to help their staff.

“Having a credible source like the NHS to say: ‘Actually, these things are advisable to put in place for employees’, I think will really help employees be able to go and say, ‘Actually, I’m really struggling with this’,” she told i.

Sophie Brooks, 25, also went through early onset menopause after undergoing a hysterectomy 18 months ago while working full time at a marketing company.

She said her company was “really good”, giving her all the time off she needed after the operation, and at listening to her when she returned to work with symptoms such as hot flushes, not sleeping due to night sweats, lack of energy and concentration and brain fog.

More on Menopause

“If there’s no support, no one understands and there’s no reasonable adjustments, it’s like you’re on your own in it all,” said Ms Brooks, who also works as a marketing associate at Talking Menopause.

“I’d describe it like you’re drowning,” she added. “You can’t do the work you need to do, you also can’t talk to anybody about it. And it’s lonely and isolating.”

Menopause charities have backed calls to improve guidelines for companies across the board after the NHS released their new guidance.

Jemima Olchawski, Fawcett Society chief executive, said: “In light of Amanda Pritchard’s announcement, the Government should now make the urgent changes that are needed – from requiring employers to have menopause action plans, to creating a route into menopause healthcare, to ensuring that GPs are adequately trained to spot menopause symptoms.

“Menopausal women are experiencing unnecessary misery and it’s a national scandal. From waiting too long for the right care, to uniforms that cause unnecessary discomfort – women are being badly let down.”

Diane Danzebrink, founder of Menopause Support, said it is “common sense” for employers to improve menopause awareness in the workplace and to offer support in order to retain staff.

She said: “I am delighted to see that NHS England have published menopause guidance to support their employees. Over the past few years, I have counselled and supported far too many nurses who have felt that they had no option but to leave their jobs due to a lack of support in the workplace.

“Approximately 75 per cent of NHS staff are women, and their average age is 43. Almost all women will be perimenopausal by their early to mid-forties and three in four will experience symptoms. It is just common sense for all employers to improve awareness of menopause within the workplace, and to offer support to those who need it if they want to retain valuable talent.

“I look forward to hearing from NHS employees that what is written in the guidance document is translating into action in the workplace because we simply cannot afford to lose more of our valuable healthcare professionals.”

Janet Lindsay, CEO of Wellbeing of Women, said: “Women make up half the UK workforce and it is vital that organisations support them to stay in work and flourish throughout their careers.”

More on Women’s Health

A total of 2,000 employers have signed the charity’s pledge to make their organisation a supportive and understanding place for employees going through menopause, including Royal Mail, Amazon, Tesco and the Civil Service leading the way by introducing changes such as menopause policies, workplace adjustments and training.

“Women make up half the UK workforce and it is vital that organisations support them to stay in work and flourish throughout their careers,” said Ms Lindsay.

A number of companies have concrete policies in place regarding menopause, but others do not have definite measures in place to make staff feel supported.

In October, KPMG commissioned a survey polling 2,000 perimenopausal, menopausal and postmenopausal adults, working between 7 and 13 October, 2022. Respondents were asked various questions relating to menopause, including what provisions their employer had in place to support them. All respondents were aware of the signs and symptoms of menopause, and 90 per cent of them said they had experienced them.

Just 38 per cent said their own employer is helping to raise awareness, while only 18 per cent of those surveyed said they felt supported by their own employer when they developed symptoms. Almost half said their employer doesn’t have a menopause policy in place, while 39 per cent were unsure.

Among the most popular support measures respondents want their employers to implement are adjustments to working patterns (38 per cent) and working environments (34 per cent), as well as more open conversations in the workplace and better education on the issue for managers (33 per cent).

A spokesperson for the Cabinet Office said: “Through the Civil Service Menopause policy, colleagues and managers are given flexibility to provide the individual support needed, including workplace adjustments where necessary.”

The College of Policing, which oversees police forces around the UK, has national guidance in place, “both for those going through menopause, and to assist managers supporting individuals in the workplace”, a spokesperson said. However, the body said “it is a matter for individual forces to consider how they implement this guidance and support their staff” in light of the NHS’s update to services.

More on NHS

The organisation is the largest body to have signed the Wellbeing of Women Menopause in the Workplace Pledge, which commits employers to fostering a supportive environment around menopause in the workplace.

Asos is among retailers that have signed the pledge. “We want to ensure our people know we’re here for them,” a spokesperson said. “Openly discussing menopause, acknowledging the challenges, and creating a supportive environment is key to that. In October 2021, we launched our menopause policy as part of a broader suite of health support, offering all individuals who are going through menopause the ability to work flexibly, take short notice leave or request to work from home.”

Tesco reviewed its policies in October, and is now enabling colleagues to take time off work to cope with menopausal symptoms, without an impact on absence rates.

Emma Taylor, Tesco’s chief people officer, said: “We want to support our colleagues through this time in their life without adding additional worries or pressure. For some colleagues, symptoms of menopause may be so debilitating there may be times when they are too unwell to come to work. That’s why we are making this latest change.

“Menopause impacts us all. We will either experience it ourselves or know a family member, friend or colleague that experiences it. It’s something we all need to know about and isn’t just an issue for women. In the UK alone, Tesco employs around 300,000 colleagues, more than half of whom are female. We encourage open, honest and positive conversations across our business, so that colleagues feel confident in talking about their own health and wellbeing, and helping us to assist with any support they may need.”

Royal Mail reviewed its menopause policies earlier this year and launched a “Let’s Talk Menopause” internal group to enable anyone affected by menopause to network with each other. The company estimates it has around 16,500 women who are likely to be experiencing menopausal and perimenopausal symptoms.

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