“There are moments you think life’s too fucking short,” Melissa Robertson, chief executive of Dark Horses and menopause advocate, admits with a sigh. “It’s such hard work.”
It’s not easy. Juggling teenagers and older parents, sorting the shop and cooking dinner, running a business that entails looking after employees and managing difficult clients, all the while experiencing the debilitating effects of menopause.
“In all honesty, I think to myself: ‘Can I do it all?’ Maybe I just can’t. When I talk to my friends, they feel it too. It’s not a conversation you would have with a man of that age.”
Nishma Patel Robb, Google’s senior director, brand and reputation marketing, and Wacl president, describes a similar experience: “I was at a point where I thought, ‘God, I can’t do my job anymore.’ I don’t know what’s wrong. You lose confidence. All of a sudden, you feel wrongfooted.”
Menopause, the end of one’s reproductive years, affects 51% of the population. It can last up to 14 years and due to extreme shifts in hormone levels, it catches women out with sudden hot flashes, memory loss and crippling mood swings, all of which induce anxiety and fear. It’s no coincidence that women aged 45 to 54 have the highest female suicide rate (almost double the rate of 15 to 19).
Due to a lack of awareness menopause continues to take people by surprise, with the symptoms often misdiagnosed as an inability to cope with the task at hand.
According to research conducted by The Fawcett Society and Channel 4 (who claim to be the first UK media company to introduce a menopause policy), which surveyed 4,000 women aged between 45-55 in early 2022, one in 10 women had left work because of symptoms of menopause (the equivalent of 333,000 women).
“Eighty per cent of a Wacl peer-mentoring group I’m part of have left senior jobs because of menopause,” Robertson shares. “We need something of a seismic shift that stops this talent loss. Because it’s undoubtedly there. Can you lead people if you seem weak?”
Rise of menopause policies
Menopause policies can make the workplace more manageable for women experiencing menopause, whether it be creating an open environment for women to talk freely about their symptoms, or giving them the space to deal with symptoms when they hit.
For the first time, Campaign’s annual School Reports questionnaire asked its 100 UK agencies whether they had a menopause policy at the end of 2022.
Eighty-six UK agencies confirmed they had a menopause policy. Of the remaining 14, three have since introduced policies (two are from the same holding company), and five claimed they were in the process of bringing one in.
Given it’s the first time Campaign has collated this information, progress is hard to quantify. However, the results are a considerable change from 2019, when innovators in female health Forth With Life found 90% of UK workplaces failed to offer menopause support.
A policy for all
While the School Report findings suggest that agencies are heading in the right direction, Robertson questions whether agencies are racing to provide menopause policies that, ultimately, don’t go far enough.
“I’ve spoken to other women about their experiences at work,” she says. “If indeed all these agencies have put policies in place, I’m not convinced that support is generally there.”
In 2021, Robertson released an open-source policy, inviting other ad agencies to copy, and if they build on it, report back. “As I wrote in our policy, it needs to be socialised. There needs to be opportunities for people to not just read the policy, but have sessions to go through it, ie these are the symptoms to look out for, here’s how to be considerate; whether it’s supporting with words, or helping out by getting a glass of water.”
Robertson points out the flaws of menopause policies that are targeted at women: “My issue is, it can’t just be for women. Are there men or younger people going to training or events? From my personal experience, it’s easier to cope when other people know, understand and support.”
Robertson would like ‘menopause champions’ to be commonplace: “I worry at the moment it’s something of an echo chamber. It’s middle-aged women talking to middle-aged women about how challenging it is.
“While that’s good for moral support, we need to get men and younger people championing it.”
On her ascension to Wacl president at the end of July, Patel Robb, who agrees that there is “variance in the policies”, said she would focus on developing a menopause policy for all businesses during her year as president: “I really worry about how long this has gone on, and how quickly we need to stop it. It’s why I made it a critical thing.”
Patel Robb says her menopause agenda feeds into Wacl’s campaign to have 50% of chief executive roles filled by women in 2045, which she intends to build momentum on.
“It’s one of our key missions at Wacl. My concern is the final hurdle to getting there is female health, specifically menopause. Although we can’t change female health, a good place to start is having consistent and robust menopause policies across all businesses in our industry. It’s about tipping that awareness and understanding into education, which forms the basis of modern leadership.”
Taking time to do it right
The&Partnership and mSixandPartners, both part of the WPP network, introduced a menopause policy this March, on International Women’s Day.
The policy covers signs and symptoms, advice for line managers and reasonable adjustments to help staff alleviate their symptoms, from temperature control (air conditioning, dress-code flexibility, fan desks and accessible chilled water), a drop-in wellbeing room for people experiencing headaches, fatigue or anxiety, flexible working (permission to work from home, a reduction in working hours and more frequent breaks) and sickness and paid leave.
It promises to review its health and wellbeing policies and practices on a regular basis.
Alex Mowle, partner, global head of people at The&Partnership, and who sits across both mSix&Partners and The&Partnership, explains: “We reviewed our offering earlier in the year. But we realised it’s more than a policy. We actually needed over and above that.”
Most importantly, Mowle recalls how the team brought in external experts to hold talks for all teams about the impact that menopause can have on people and how best to support them in the workplace.
Goodstuff has plans to introduce a policy over the coming weeks. Sara Donovan, chief people officer, explains the agency is taking its time “to do it right”.
“We don’t believe in a ‘one size fits all’ with any policy. That means taking the time to research and find an approach that’s flexible. We are currently undertaking a review of all our life and health policies. We’ve been working on this for the best part of a year with a small team and it will be launching in September 2023.”
A holistic view of women’s health
Policies are often siloed, splitting up periods, fertility, miscarriage and menopause. Some advocates are calling for women’s healthcare to be treated in its entirety.
Wonderhood Studios doesn’t currently have a menopause policy in place. Jessica Lovell, founder and chief strategy officer, explains only two women, herself included, are in the menopause age bracket.
“Fundamentally as a relatively small company it hasn’t felt like much of a priority,” she admits. “We haven’t had the bandwidth from an HR point of view in terms of putting these policies in place.”
Lovell explains the way Wonderhood Studios plans to approach it. “We intend to organise a wider policy that covers a broader category of female health-related issues,” she says.
“A policy that looks at things holistically. These policies are about creating a culture where people feel comfortable that things are going to be acknowledged properly and that the protection will be in place for them.”
Patel Robb agrees. “We need to think about women in the workplace and women’s healthcare needs to be treated in its entirety,” she says. “There are mountains to climb. We need to get to a point where no woman should feel at a disadvantage, and no man should feel it’s an advantage.
“I’m looking both ways. I’ve had men suggest having a menopause policy in place would encourage women to take the piss and take time off.”
Policy is only first step
A menopause policy, Patel Robb argues, only goes so far. “It’s how we execute that policy, it’s how we manage it, it’s how it becomes part of business culture. That’s when we really succeed. A written policy is, in my mind, the first step on a journey. It’s not the end destination.”
In the same way, the ad industry thinks about mental health, Patel Robb implores the industry to do more to stop people from walking out the door.
“I had somebody [to ask for advice]. It was only because I reached out to someone older and much wiser. And my menopause doctor told me: don’t make any rash decisions in your life right now. Your hormones are all over the place. It was helpful and reassuring. Sometimes, you just need to know.”
This is the second of a three-part series of features looking at wellbeing and health agency policies. The first, focusing on period policies, can be read here: Putting the normal in hormonal: adland implements more period policies
This article originally appeared on Campaign US.