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Why communications about the menopause must change

Credit: Ian Morris, SEC Newgate

Avanti West Coast came under fire from rail unions in February, for the contents of a gift bag it designed for menopausal women in its workforce. With gifts including a fan for hot sweats, a jelly baby “in case you feel like biting someone’s head off” and a tissue “if you’re feeling a bit emotional”, trade unions dubbed it “demeaning” and an “insulting gimmick”, causing furore on social media.

Though on the surface the tone of the gift bag does appear tone deaf, in the company’s defence, it was part of a much wider package of support including guidance for colleagues and managers and a support group on internal channels. The idea was also conceived not by an out-of-touch executive in an ivory tower, but by its menopause support group, made up of women themselves going through the menopause.

Let’s not also forget that the rail union leading the charge on the criticism is currently in a pay dispute with Avanti, and failed to mention the wider package of support and the fact that the gift bags had been in use for almost a year without complaint.

But the episode highlights that many organisations do find the menopause a difficult subject to communicate to their staff about.

Even if we have progressed beyond the hushed whispers about “the change”, there is still a huge stigma around menopause and a lack of awareness and understanding around its symptoms.

This must change. Menopause impacts almost all women at some point, often with debilitating effects. According to the Fawcett Society, 10% of sufferers are so severely affected by it that they resign from their jobs. That’s well over a million potential resignations if you consider there are around 13 million people in the UK currently menopausal or perimenopausal.

Clearly the development of menopause policies will be HR-led but internal communications professionals have a vital role to play in ensuring staff are aware of them and understand them.

Here are some key points for internal communicators to bear in mind when considering how to communicate to staff about the menopause.

  1. Engage with colleagues: if your company doesn’t yet have a menopause policy, internal communicators can be a huge support to the HR team. Understanding what affected team members are going through and want from their employer is vital, and internal communicators can help to engage them sensitively and constructively. For those trying to communicate about existing policies, ensuring voices from all levels of the organisation can be heard is useful, rather than being too top-down. Women in different roles will have very different experiences, and sharing these can be powerful in promoting discussion and understanding.

  2. Make it clear the company is supportive: it is crucial to make it crystal-clear to all employees that the company understands the issues and is supportive of them from the top and throughout the organisation. Widespread understanding of this can go a long way to creating an open and stigma-free environment.

  3. Education is key: internal communicators have a critical role in educating staff and building support. Staff must understand what support is available to increase uptake and encourage open discussion. Particularly important are people managers in the business, who must understand the policies and what adjustments can be made to support those affected. There are many ways to educate internally, from inviting in external speakers to using intranet or specific benefits platforms, or simple awareness posters around the workplace.

  4. Don’t patronise or trivialise: while communications around menopause should be empathetic, companies must be careful not to be patronising, particularly the given the audience of experienced, mature people. Avanti clearly tried to inject humour into their comms with their gift bag idea, and I don’t want to judge how employees felt about that, though clearly trying to be humorous about symptoms that can be debilitating runs the risk of offending the very people you are trying to support.

  5. Be regular: one-off communications will not cut the mustard in order to create the open and understanding working environment you should be aiming for. Even companies who offer menopause support could up their game. Research from digital health app Peppy suggests that of the companies who do so, 18% only communicate on the subject on a quarterly or less frequent basis.

  6. Engage men: as some of the beadier-eyed amongst you will have noticed, I am a man writing this column about an issue that directly affects women. I don’t pretend to be an expert on menopause or how it feels, but unless men take part in the conversation and do their bit to improve how companies manage the impact of menopause in the workplace, progress will be hindered. Yes, it is a women’s issue, but it is also an issue that organisations and society at large need to address.

Ian​​​​ Morris, director, communications, SEC Newgate.

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