Helen Tomlinson discusses her role as the government's first ever menopause employment champion and Kate Nowicki gives her thoughts and observations from her role as Acas menopause champion.
We’re joined by:
- Helen Tomlinson – head of talent (UK and Ireland) for the Adecco Group and menopause employment champion
- Kate Nowicki – Acas's director of dispute resolution and menopause champion
- the role of allyship
- the importance of workplace culture
- implementing a menopause policy
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Joseph Salmassian: Hello and welcome to the Acas podcast. I’m Joseph Salmassian, and in this episode, we’re discussing menopause in the workplace and how organisations can better support women.
Joining us for this timely discussion is the first ever government appointed menopause champion, Helen Tomlinson and Kate Nowicki, director of dispute resolution at Acas and Acas menopause champion.
If you’re affected by any of the issues raised in this episode, details of where you can find support for yourself, or your organisation can be found in the programme notes.
Thank you both for joining us today. So, Helen, if I could start with you? You’ve been the menopause workplace champion for about half a year now and I just wanted to know a bit about how that’s going for you and if people have been receptive to your work and messages?
Helen Tomlinson: It’s a really good question Joseph and thank you for asking that first off. It’s going in a way I never ever could have imagined, that it would get so busy so quickly.
So, I really didn’t know what to expect, it’s the first time this role has existed and when I was asked to do it we kind of talked about what it might look like, how it might work, et cetera.
But in that time I’ve spoken to over 70 employers to talk to them about what they’re doing in the menopause space and more broadly around women’s health. And I’ve worked with several governing bodies, sector bodies, created a strategy, started to implement the strategy, so it’s been phenomenally busy in a way I could have never, ever imagined.
Joseph: How receptive have organisations been?
Helen: Where I’m at, at the moment, is I’ve been doing due diligence and getting a better understanding of what employers are doing because I think it would probably help if I tell you what part of the strategy is so it helps to work that in.
So, I’ve had a lot of employers come to me saying, "We’re doing some really good stuff in this space, can we share it?" That’s what the role is absolutely about. It’s about the sharing of best practice so all women, regardless of what type of organisation they work in, have access to best practice.
So, as an example the first part of the strategy is absolutely that we’ll create sector-specific best practice, hosted on a portal that anyone can access free of charge.
So, one of my key focus areas is that it’s free and accessible to everybody, regardless of their ethnicity, their socio demographic profile, et cetera. And what we will do with that information is sharing the best practice that larger organisations are doing and letting smaller organisations (the SME community which makes up 90% of UK businesses), letting them have access to that free of charge.
Joseph: With regards to the best practice, how does that translate from the large organisations down to the SMEs?
Helen: So that’s what the portal will be for, to allow them to access that.
But what I think is really important is that employers are coming to me and not seeing it as a competitive advantage if you like. So they’re not saying, "I don’t want to share within my sector what I’m doing because if I do, it won’t give me that talent attraction strategy – come to us if you’re menopausal because we do great stuff" because it’s bigger than that.
My role is about making sure it’s accessible and equitable to all women, and I’m delighted that people are coming to me wanting to share that best practice. The second part of it is about an allyship programme. Again, a lot of large organisations have brilliant allyship programmes internally but I want them to share that so that people working in smaller organisations have the same opportunity to find somebody to talk to and share their experiences with.
Joseph: From the Acas perspective Kate, what are we hearing from employees and employers around the issue of menopause?
Kate Nowicki: Well, you know that’s such a good question and it really builds on what Helen has said in that we seem to be, not in every case, but in some areas we’re entering into that realm of we’ve broken the ice with menopause, now how do we make that a bit more of a sustained topic within the workplace? How do we really give it roots and to build on something, I can see you’ve said Helen, which is about health being valued so it is really bedded in as a thing because we know there are still a quarter of workplaces that we know don’t have a menopause policy.
So it’s like we’ve almost had that opening moment if you like, of getting it out there. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it’s out there in every place we need it to be, absolutely not, not by a million miles. But to some extent there has been a lot of publicity, but what I think employers want to do now, particularly those employers thinking more progressively, is what more they can do.
And really fabulous Helen to hear about your work there in sectors and for small employers. It’s far too important for employers to keep it for themselves for competitive advantage. So I really love hearing about that and would be really interested to know about that sectorial perspective because Joe that’s definitely a second tier of development there for my point of view. I think that’s brilliant, because employers do want to know what is it about, what we do in our space. And for smaller employers they still many of them, I’m sure Helen would agree, don’t yet even know where to start.
And one thing I’m really struck by what Helen has said, which is what we hear from employees and what one of my observations is, is around the socio-economic status of the employee in the workplace. So my own personal observation, is for many women who have got the education and resources to find out about menopause probably doing okay and are probably educating up to their employer.
But there are many, many women who I’m concerned aren’t getting through. So to hear about what Helen is saying is really taking it to that next level and I think the switched on employers are asking about that too. I don’t know, Helen, what are your thoughts around that?
Helen: Absolutely, and that was something I was really passionate about when I took the role, because it’s obviously voluntary, in addition to my day job. And I’m very lucky that the Adecco Group are incredibly supportive of the work that I’m doing, but I actually don’t mind the fact it’s a voluntary role because menopause is a multi-million-pound industry.
I was on a BBC Talking Business programme a few weeks ago and that was one of the topics. I’m really conscious that the role I’m playing is giving, providing advocacy and a platform. I feel really privileged that I’ve got this opportunity to speak up for women who don’t have either the platform or the confidence or just the ability to speak up for themselves.
That’s really important to me because I know at the latter end of last year there was a lot of narrative about menopause being a white, middle class privilege and that’s why I feel very strongly that the work that I do has to translate across all ethnicities where English might not be the first language, they may not have culturally the word for menopause. We see that a lot in the work that I do internally across the Adecco Group.
It’s the children of women who are going through menopause that are explaining what is happening to them because of what they’ve learnt in the workplace and from a socio-economic perspective as well.
The way I look at it is there are 3 kinds of role and I’ll talk to you in a sec about the sectors I’m working across. There are 3 kinds of role: the totally autonomous roles, there are the semi-autonomous roles and there are the non-autonomous roles.
And there are broadly 2 types of symptoms: practical symptoms and psychological symptoms. So, what tends to happen in the non-autonomous role, obviously the practical symptoms can be a real issue, that can be a real challenge. But that’s not to say they don’t have psychological issues as well, but when you look at the autonomous roles they tend to be more of the leadership roles and more of the senior roles.
We know that women over 50 are the fastest growing demographic in the workforce. The average age of a women going into a leadership role, according to the FTSE 500, is 51. So all those things happening all together, that’s when it’s more the psychological issues of menopause that play into that and it’s the feeling of anxiety, loss of confidence, insomnia, et cetera. So if you look at all of that you know that covers pretty much every type of role. So I’m really focused on that top- down, bottom- up approach so it’s meaningful for everybody.
In terms of the sectors, the government asked me to focus on 5 specific sectors with the backing of those sector bodies. But I’m also really passionate about women working in the education sector and about the lack of autonomy that the 98% of women who work in primary education have in their day-to-day job. So, I’ve included education because it’s something very personal to me and I’m very passionate about.
But the 5 sectors we are focusing on are: retail, hospitality, adult care, manufacturing and professional and technical. And the other interesting aspect of that is they cover top- down leadership roles, right down to non-autonomous and entry level roles in all of those sectors. A lot of them are non-autonomous because they’re either customer or client-facing.
But the other interesting types of organisations I’m working with are those who really have multiple sectors in one organisation. So, they’ll have professional and technical, they also may have manufacturing as well, so that's multi-discipline.
And how do you make it work for those who are in a leadership role but also, for people who might be on a food production line where you literally can not leave, or you might be a train driver, you can’t suddenly say I need to go to the bathroom. So, there are so many different facets to that, so it's very much for me around supporting women who don’t have access to the stuff that’s really going to help them.
Joseph: There’s a lot to unpack there Helen. One of the first things that springs to mind, it sounds like this issue of menopause in the workplace intersects with other issues around race and gender and other pre-existing inequalities and I know that there’s been a real push around having allies in the workplace and I wanted to touch upon how allyship can play a part in bringing about positive outcomes.
Helen: Yup, absolutely and I think that ties in with something Kate mentioned a moment ago and that was around the second-tier piece, and I think it's relevant. Obviously the role is about menopause in the workplace and I started on this journey by launching our own menopause policy in the Adecco Group and really championing that.
It’s actually all the stuff that happens around that and after that. That’s what changes the culture of an organisation, not the policy in isolation. So it’s really important that we build in that, you know, manager training, allyship programmes, safe space conversations, all practical support, all of those.
When Kate mentioned about it being two tiered I actually talk about it more broadly as women’s health rather than just talk about menopause in the workplace. So we’ve actually changed our policy to be a women’s health policy and everything that sits below it are guiding principles.
So we have guiding principles around period management in the workplace, around fertility – obviously we’ve got all our policies around maternity, et cetera. But that allows us to open up the conversation and what’s that done, in opening up that conversation about women’s health, has actually created that allyship piece because now, when we’re talking about perimenopause in group sessions, et cetera, we’re now having someone on there wanting to be an ally for their mum or sister.
So it’s not just about that person, it’s about broader intersectionality and familiar environment that they may be in, whatever that looks like.
But you asked me about allyship – I often, well, I know that men can be our greatest allies without a doubt. From the work I’ve done, externally and internally, creating those safe spaces, I do a lot of those 'men-only' sessions and some organisations are like, is that not a step back?. I can completely see that point, but when I have done them, that conversation has been around, this is a safe space, ask me anything, you’ll probably never see me again, there’s nothing you can say that can embarrass me.
So I did one for DWP not that long ago and one of the men said, "We just want to help, but we don’t know what to say, so we don’t say anything." Everything we could say could be potentially wrong and I think that applied to both at home and in work. It’s really good to allow that safe space, because once they understand and they’ve asked the question, they become some of the most passionate allies and supporters. So I think that’s really, really important.
Joseph: It’s a big point about culture there and I wanted to pick up on that actually. Kate, with you as Acas menopause champion, how important is culture?
Kate: It’s such a good question Joe, and I just think it’s so extraordinary to see how a culture can shift and when you think about, you know that culture triangle, where what you see at the top reflecting those deeply held beliefs because at board level, we have a board in Acas which is genuinely committed to supporting this particular agenda and I love Helen your articulation there around the wider health agenda and I'm just going off a side line here in terms of organisational maturity, having that maturity as an organisation to really push into that women’s health space.
I think that’s fabulous, I’d love to talk about that some other time on another podcast maybe?
To get that cultural shift really, really going and to reflect what’s a genuine commitment from the board as a deeply held belief and make that manifest amongst teams and amongst the people who we’re working with, who are doing brilliant front line work in Acas. We actually have to do stuff to make that happen and that does mean us doing, having those sessions.
We have one coming up in our inclusion week. I’ll be hosting a conversation and very much as you just described Helen, a private space for women – we’ll talk around things, either specific or more generally and I’m sure we’ll have some laughs along the way.
But also demonstrating through the policy and sharing but also training and supporting our line managers throughout the organisation to inform them. And I don’t know about you, Helen, but I’m still shocked, genuinely shocked, that even amongst women who are entering into the age or are experiencing menopause directly themselves, the lack of knowledge and understanding about what they are going through.
Many people I encounter, whether in Acas or outside of Acas are very well-informed and well-educated and curious women, and still it’s a concern to me, the lack of knowledge and understanding and the myths that persist. I don’t know, is that something you’d recognise Helen?
Helen: It is, and I suppose you only know and see what you know and see. And actually I speak to a lot of organisations where they are really upskilling women but I have spoken to a lot of women who have left their role because of menopause, because they just didn’t, couldn’t articulate what they were experiencing, they didn’t know what it was they were experiencing.
So that is a really important aspect of it, making sure we’re doing a great job starting to empower women, but it’s also important that we give line managers the tools to take receipt of that conversation and all too often I see line managers going into solution mode without really asking the question, "What is it I can do to support you?"
And actually, doing the wrong thing is worse than not doing anything at all. So we really need to educate around that as well. Still definitely a lot of work to do in that space but I think we’re making really good progress and the fact people are willing to come forward and tell their story and again is really, really important.
Kate: It absolutely is, and Joe and I were speaking earlier and reflecting on the challenges. I think you were saying, Joe, about the challenges perhaps for some men as line managers.
Joseph: Certainly Kate, I think there could be a perception, particularly if it’s a younger man managing an older woman, they might not feel comfortable, they might not know how to broach those conversations, they might simply be ignorant about the topic. There’s definitely an educational piece there around how to have that conversation. It’s definitely a big starting point.
Helen: I do think that’s why that training and support is so important. And just reflecting on when we launched our menopause policy back in 2021, I honestly, in hindsight, thought I’d done a great thing – I’d launched our menopause policy, job done!
Actually, all the policy did was start the conversation that created the allyship, that created the education that changed the culture of the organisation. And I don’t even say that lightly, that it’s changed the culture in such a way that it’s allowed us to introduce so many different topics.
There’s 2 things I would have done when I launched the policy. I would have made line manager training mandatory, but I also would have done more of … I did a podcast before I launched it with 3 other senior leaders within the organisation, all 3 of us were very honest about our symptoms and experiences and the way it impacted on our day job. What that did was allow other women to come forward and say that I’m experiencing that, or think well, if they’re struggling, it’s okay that I’m struggling.
So that was one thing, the second thing was absolutely the line manager's training. I didn’t make it mandatory. I tell everyone now, make it mandatory. But I think at that time it wasn’t as widely talked about, wasn’t widely as understood and I set up a session and invited all and did a 'men-only' managers' session and I had 2 line managers dial into it and one of them had dialled into the wrong call and was too embarrassed to dial off. But I’ve since done one, I did one at the request of the business about 2 months ago and there were so many people on that call, not just managers but people wanting to understand, to be able to support, as I said before, their wider family, et cetera, et cetera.
Joseph: Do you also find, sorry to cut across you, but do you also find that women find it difficult to discuss this amongst themselves?
Helen: Not as much, but you know, there are women who don’t want to talk about it. You know it’s a fact the average age for perimenopause is 41. As soon as you start to talk externally about your symptoms, you are putting an age on yourself and there is still, I think a view, that if you aren’t in an organisation where it is very equitable, gender equitable, I work in an organisation that is 60% female so probably don’t feel that in the same way and I still hear stories of women who feel that they’re made to feel like they’ve done their time or should they step down into a different role, et cetera.
So if I were in an environment like that I’d have a different view. But there are women who don’t want to admit that they could possibly be of the age where they are perimenopausal and that’s a challenge within organisations because it stops other women talking about it.
Kate: You made me smile there Helen. I’ve given up trying to disguise my age, I never did really try. It’s all out there now, that’s for sure!
Helen: And I genuinely don’t think there’s any point because I’m a firm believer in that if you come through menopause and you’re well supported in your organisation and you take steps to support yourself, it can’t all be about your employer, you take steps to look after your own health, nutritionally, lifestyle choices, exercise, all of that.
When you come through menopause and you’re postmenopausal, as I guess I am now, it’s completely different, you have a completely different perception, experience and got another 10 or 15 years left of your career and arguably that can be the best 10 to 15 years of career.
Joseph: And it’s interesting you say that about, you know, being at that point where you’re thinking, the idea is germinating about formulating a policy. But as we move forward now Helen, you’re talking about just reframing the whole conversation and looking at it as this health issue, which is, I think, a fantastic way to really get people thinking differently about it and with that in mind and also thinking about things like recruitment and retention, how does the menopause issue play into that?
Helen: From a retention perspective, you know, the number of women who are considering leaving their career, changing their career, have stepped away from their career due to menopause is phenomenal. There are 600,030 women who are claiming universal credit between the ages of 45 and 55 as well and it makes me feel, it’s a bit of a sliding doors moment I guess, isn’t it?
If I’d been working for a previous employer, not that they necessarily would have been, on the basis that, had I been working for another employer that hadn’t been supportive and forward thinking, et cetera, my experience could have been entirely different and I could have felt I had no choice to leave the workplace or take a step back, et cetera.
So, the whole retention piece, and you know, I’m not saving lives or, you know, we say at work, what we do is good work, it’s hard work, but we’re not saving lives. But if you were, you know, you think about sometimes I can easily have a brain fog moment, completely forget what I’m saying. You know, if I were a surgeon working in theatre and I kept doing that, that’s pretty impactful on my job. If I’m in a classroom of students, it is.
I’ve spoken to the fire service, I’ve spoken to the police service. If you’re in an emergency and you can’t remember what you’re supposed to be doing, that’s pretty frightening, you know, pretty life changing. Having that consideration, having that wrap-around care and support is so important to retain women in the workforce, when they’re probably going to have, moving forward, less responsibility.
We’re in that sort of sandwich area. It is a perfect storm, 51 is the average of menopause, we’re having children arguably later, probably got caring for people who are living longer, caring responsibilities, there is all that. We have to work longer and remain financially active for longer than ever before due to cost of living and all that sort of stuff. But also, the retirement age is increasing. So, if you don’t manage it and support women through that period, there will come a time when you have more time left to work really, then premenopause, because we’re living longer. The first person who will live to 150 has already been born so that’s something to consider. The average age of a girl starting her menstrual cycle is now 10, it used to be 12. So you only have a certain number of menstrual cycles throughout your life, so if that is coming down you’ve got more time postmenopause. So, it’s such a strong business case, if nothing else, to support women through this period of time.
Kate: Absolutely, absolutely. That’s such a powerful point to make and it links into your previous point about people typically taking on a leadership role at the age of 51, doesn’t it?
And I was just reflecting as you were speaking about that cultural piece in our inclusion week coming up, one of the sessions coming up is actually about menstrual myth busting. Well goodness me, we don’t have to look far back in time, in any organisation I’m sure, let alone Acas, you think well, that would have never, ever have seen the light of day.
I was actually thinking earlier about – I think it’s about 13 years ago, a long time ago when I had a slightly different role in the organisation and we organised a sort of seminar, if you like, on menopause in the workplace. So, real cutting edge stuff about, it really was, it was about 60 women and 1 man squeezed into a little conference room in the East Midlands, where I’m based, and it was like, it was such a, such a watershed moment and people were saying, "Do you think there’s something around here that we could maybe start to look at policies for?" It was quite extraordinary, so yeah, we’ve come a long way.
Helen: And I think some of that is a generational piece as well. You know, we run an internal course called ‘Managing across the generations’, because managing 5 generations of people in your organisation is a challenge because what, you know, the experience of the Gen Z is probably very different to managing someone who’s a traditionalist or a boomer. So that openness.
What I was going to say before, was when we launched our menopause policy we did it through a formula really of podcast, policy launch, training, inclusion brunch, safe space coffee morning we have regularly and then more of a one to one personal support mechanism and then sign posting to GP or something like that. But we’ve used that formula now to launch topics that we’ve never been able to discuss, a bit like we had one called, ‘Bloody hell, we’re talking about periods’ not long after. We never would have been able to do that.
Kate: I just think that’s such a brilliant way to tap into that side of the conversation and I’m certainly going to be thinking, "Oh, what can I do as the Acas menopause champion to open up those conversations with men?" So what if only 2 people turn up and one dialled in accidentally, it doesn’t really matter, does it, if it gets the ball rolling.
And I love the suggestion there Helen as well about an inclusion brunch. That appeals to me on multiple levels, I must say.
Joseph: Brilliant, on that positive note perhaps we could think about final thoughts, any last points, anything we haven’t covered, Helen?
Helen: For anybody who is going through perimenopause or menopause now and is finding it challenging, don’t see this as a time you have to step back or step out of your career, because if you asked and get the support you need, whether that be through your workplace, through your GP, through a friendship group or whatever your starting point is, once you are through, it will give you an absolute platform to enjoy the next 10 to15 years of your career.
And people often ask me what is your hope for the future on this topic, and my hope for the future is that we’re not having sessions like this because it’s such, you know, my mum never talked about it, I hope my daughter will never need to talk about it in the way we are, in the education space, because it will just be part and parcel of, you know, we don’t have webinars on pregnancy and things like that do we, you know, because that’s just part and parcel of the work, you know, a women’s health through her career, and I almost do myself out of a role because it’s just everyday life.
Kate: Well said, well said and the only thing I would say and I suppose the mirror of that is for employers, educate yourselves, use those resources, all those things. Listen back to the podcast, there have been some brilliant tips from Helen in our conversation which are absolutely superb to getting that space to change the culture in your own organisation to give the support to the women in the workplace and by extension the men and the families as well.
Joseph: Thank you, Kate, and thank you Helen. On that note we bring the podcast to a close. I hope you have found the discussion informative and thought provoking.
Thank you and goodbye.