You may have seen that RSA are committed to becoming an accredited menopause friendly employer. We spoke to menopause advocate and support café host Ian Rayner and his wife Julie-Ann about what our training programme has meant to them.
Ian, how has the menopause appeared in your life?
My first experience was seeing my mum struggle through the menopause in the 80s with virtually no support as the level of understanding and information was simply not available. Most recently, I have seen my wife question her abilities and mental health, having been one of the most accomplished people I know.
What was your historic understanding of the menopause before this time?
When my mum was going through the menopause, I had no idea what was happening. To me, it seemed as though she was having some sort of breakdown.
With my wife, I’ve seen her go from someone that was a signed musician / recording artist international pa / business start-up manager / business owner, to then questioning her abilities, leaving roles or not applying for positions she was more than qualified to do. I now think she might have started going through perimenopause some time ago.
What do you understand about the menopause now?
The standout thing is that technically, the menopause occurs in one day! The menopausal symptoms experienced by most are either during perimenopause or post-menopause. I’ve learned that there is a much wider variety of symptoms and after-effects than I thought, and whilst some may be more common than others, experiences of menopause vary dramatically.
Another key thing for me is that whilst the average age to experience menopause is 51, the menopause can start much earlier, and even be triggered by medical conditions/operations.
It is highly likely that the lack of HRT (hormone replacement therapy) and care when my mum was experiencing symptoms and going through her journey can be directly attributed to her suffering from osteoporosis.
How have RSA shaped this new understanding- what has the training involved?
To achieve the Menopause Friendly accreditation an independent panel of judges needs to confirm that an organisation is offering the right awareness, education, and support. The programme Helen Simpson and Sandy Hildyard Harris have developed to achieve this is amazing. We have access to an extraordinary wealth of learning resources, a training program for advocates and champions that is starting with Leaders and is open to all, and our meet-up groups - the menopause cafés.
I’ve met a host of amazing people in the advocates and champions group. I try to take in as much as possible in our discussions because it brings to life how different people are, and not only how brilliantly they cope with some things, but also, how they have struggled with things. The cafés clearly show people that they are not alone, and hopefully that they can get through it.
We have received lovely feedback as part of the training and discussions we have had across RSA, the common theme is a sense of relief, they’re not going mad, they’re not alone and so much support is available.
Have you noticed changes as a result of this new understanding?
It has really enabled me to show more empathy with my team, my family and friends or indeed anyone that I speak to that either is/has experienced the menopause or knows someone that does. I hope those I have spoken to feel empowered to speak up and say how they are feeling without fear of someone rolling their eyes or worse, just having no time for their situation at all.
Personally, I almost feel a sense of guilt that my mum had to go through her journey pretty much alone, but I’m glad to have been able to bring more support to my wife. We’re both clear she does not have early onset dementia, she has thankfully got some of her mojo back, and whilst she hasn’t gone back into teaching Zumba just yet (another of her amazing talents), she has recently re-joined the London Show Choir as well as taking up Stand Up Paddle Boarding as part of a local club and goes out every week with a group of ladies known as She Paddles.
This reminds me of my favourite quote (and this is nothing to do with me, so cannot take any credit) from someone at work and that is; ‘I have my cape back’. To see the difference a little knowledge can make is amazing!
I see you’ve hosted some menopause cafés- what does a café involve?
Each café is different, we run two per month virtually and some in person now that we have more people back in the office.
The key thing is creating a safe space and environment to talk freely.
One week we’ll have a lunch and learn video for the first 30 minutes or so. Each video has been made with either a doctor or expert in their field on a variety of topics aimed at building a greater understanding and providing information on what can be done to help or where to get greater support. This is then followed by an open forum to either discuss more on the topic of the video or indeed anything else that anyone may find helpful.
The alternate week we will have a brief introduction and welcome, followed by a completely open forum. Although we encourage everyone to speak and share their experience, it may be that people are not comfortable doing so and so it is key to make sure they know that they can reach out to the Advocates and Champions after the café, at any point they need. I am pleased to say that we have had lots of individual engagement too where this is the case.
It is amazing how well attended the cafés have been so far. We have had such positive feedback not only from people that are going through the menopause, but those that had no idea about half (or more) of the symptoms – or that male menopause is actually a real thing (it’s called Andropause).
Key to our success are Leaders, building their knowledge and supporting their teams more than ever. After all, it may not be impacting anyone in their team directly, but it could be a member of their families and that could so easily have a knock-on effect to RSA.
Julie-Ann, tell us a bit about your experience with the menopause: did you have preconceptions, how does the reality match up?
Perimenopausal stages had a big impact on my anxiety levels. I have also seen lots of other symptoms such as brain fog, some weight gain, mood swings, high body temperature, and night sweats/lack of sleep. I didn’t necessarily understand the stages of the whole menopause lifecycle, so whilst I may have expected some or all of the symptoms experienced, I didn’t understand that these may be more pronounced in perimenopause, or indeed that perimenopause was a thing. Apart from a better understanding of the menopause stages, it has been about a 50/50 match against expectations.
How would you describe menopause? What is it like on a day-to-day basis?
It’s so very frustrating! Brain fog has to be the biggest issue, almost tied with a lack of confidence. Previously I have had a very varied and highly successful career path, and all of a sudden, I found myself doubting my abilities and even not going for roles that I previously could have done with my hands tied behind my back. With regards to the brain fog, I questioned whether or not this was early onset dementia. It can be debilitating or restricting. For example, if you are low because of mood swings or indeed a lack of confidence/sleep, then you don’t want to do anything and can easily just sit in a funk.
Do you notice a difference in how Ian responds to you as a result of his training at RSA? Is there a clear before and after- can you describe the difference?
I’m very fortunate as he is quite an understanding and considerate person naturally. However, the thing I would say it has helped with is his understanding of what I am going through so whilst it hasn’t made a huge difference in how he treats me, his approach is now more from an educated point of view, rather than just being nice.
What’s it like having a menopause advocate for a husband?
It makes me very proud of him. It’s very educational. It makes talking to him about menopause so much easier. It enables me to be more open to my friends as well, using what he is doing as a great way to start conversations about the menopause.
Has any of his training positively influenced your understanding of your own experience a bit more?
100% It has also made me confident about talking to other people… even offering Ian out to talk to them.
I think it is fantastic when a company prioritises wellbeing so much in their organisation. It impacts so many people, but in addition to that, any family, friends and colleagues that they know. So to be able to educate not only people who experience the menopause but also those that don’t can only help to make the company a better place as understanding what is happening either at work or personally can only benefit everyone.
From what I understand with the attendance at support groups and training, it has already reached an amazing amount of people and that can only have a positive impact on the company.
I wish that my company was promoting this level of wellbeing.
What would you like to see happen next?
I would like for RSA to become accredited for what they have done and are doing. Once accredited, I would like to hear that the work continues and inspires more people to work for RSA. I would really like for it to spill out to other companies so that more and more women have as much support as I hear about at RSA.
Ultimately, it would be an ideal world where the level of support for this inevitability in a woman’s lifecycle is matched to pregnancy or maternity leave, etc.