In 2015, a survey of 3,275 women aged between 40-65 women conducted by Nuffield Health revealed that as a direct result of the menopause, one in ten women had considered quitting their jobs as they felt unable to cope. Kathryn Colas, also known as the “Menopause Lady” was one such ‘victim’. However, her decision has led to a whole new chapter in her life; SimplyHormones, the company founded on the back of that decision is leading the way in helping men and women recognise and understand what going through the menopause can entail as well as providing much needed training for employers to offer ways in which they can help and support women at work while going through the menopause.
According to Kathryn’s husband “the menopause is like a hurricane – dangerous and deadly” and having experienced what Kathryn described as 10 years of hell, she is determined that other women and men have access to a wealth of information that wasn’t readily available to her when she most needed it.
From her mother’s own experience, Kathryn recalls that her mother too didn’t have an easy menopause and, as still happens today, Kathryn remembers clearly that her mum left home:
“I came home from work to find dad in the garden mowing the lawn. I asked about mum and he didn’t stop to talk to me about it but said she’d gone away for a few days and left a salad for me in the fridge. She rang later and confirmed she’d be away for a couple of days but didn’t explain why. When she came home, there was a real atmosphere in the house but nobody spoke about it, then or ever again. I now know that my mum was at the stage of menopause that I call the ‘tsunami’. A feeling of being overwhelmed and unable to cope. PMS on speed!”
Kathryn’s grew up in South WestLondon with her brother and whilst her father worked as an engineer, her mother ran the family groceryshop. Having been dissuaded from being a hairdresser as her father considered it a luxury trade that would disappear first in a recession, Kathryn went on to become a very successful stenographer before following the traditional route of getting married.
Her husband is Spanish, which enabled her to become fluent in that language and together they set up up a country house hotel with limited initial investment. Through hard work and endeavour, the business was extremely successful growing to a £2m turnover with her husband’s experience and flair for ensuring the hospitality side of the business was second to none. Kathryn managed the marketing and administrative function of the business. It was at this point, when her own ‘tsunami’ was about to hit. Looking back with the benefit of hindsight and through the extensive research into her symptoms, Kathryn is now a passionate advocate of dispelling the taboos and myths around the menopause:
“I went through ten years of hell! I had no preconceived ideas about menopause, I didn’t have a clue. All I knew, at the time, was that my life was being turned upside down; I felt unwell, I was diagnosed with depression and my marriage was on the rocks. Once I discovered that my hormones were the root cause, I dived into research and medical conferences and realised there was a total lack of information for women. The doctors and academics were talking to each other but nobody was talking to us.”
Fortunately for Kathryn, her marriage survived the ‘menopause maelstrom’ but, sadly, that’s not the case for everyone. Kathryn’s determination to understand more about what was happening to her and the effect it had on her relationship with her husband and family gave her a valuable insight into how life-changing the menopause can be for everyone, particularly the husbands and partners who can often feel very isolated when their wives suddenly appear to reject them – sex can cease for no obvious reason and the mood swings can be difficult to cope with.
There will be many thousands of women who have already embarked on their own menopause journey but who may not be aware that it has actually started as, surprisingly, the journey starts earlier than perhaps many of us are aware:
“I would recommend that women take a look at what age they are (hormones start changing at 35) and think about monthly PMS and what’s happening in their bodies; recognise that they feel different. Women begin to experiencing symptoms they don’t recognise and which are too trivial to go to the doctor about. Looking at the timescales can really help, especially as some very strange symptoms will potentially kick in around age 45 and you could go absolutely nuts around the age of 50! Knowledge is power.”
Common symptoms are well known and documented – the hot flushes, mood swings and night sweats – but other symptoms include anxiety, irregular heartbeat, sleeplessness, aching sore joints, increase in muscle tension, episodes of loss of balance, fingernails becoming softer and breaking more easily and some women even experience the sensation of having a burning tongue/roof of their mouth and a bad taste in the mouth. This list is not exhaustive but the variety gives an indication of how easy it can be to dismiss symptoms or not to link them to the menopause.
It is not unusual for women going through the menopause to suffer bouts of anxiety and depression but are GPs simply prescribing to treat the symptoms rather than the cause?
“I remember a Radio4 Women’s Hour programme, years ago, discussing menopause and a doctor, a GP, phoned in and said “if only I’d known more about menopause, we would probably still be married”! That says it all, really, doesn’t it. If GP’s don’t understand menopause and we visit GP’s for answers about menstrual problems and then menopause, we’re not going to get the right answers, are we, or we are fobbed off with anti-depressants, even though the NICE Guidelines on menopause advise doctors not to prescribe anti-depressants. The BMS is making huge strides in educating medical professionals on menopause but it’s not enough”
With mental health and wellbeing being such hot topics at the moment and employers have a duty of care towards all of their employees, by 2050, over 1/3 of the population will be at state retirement age. Given that state retirement age has been creeping up to 65, increasing to 68 over the next few years for both men and women, it’s no surprise that more and more employers are actively seeking out help as they recognise they will have additional challenges to face with an ageing workforce.
Interestingly, it was an approach from the male-dominated fire service that crystallised Kathryn’s idea for her fledgling business. Their stated need for training gave direction as to how she could best harness the knowledge she had as a result of her research. Helping men and women understand and recognise the symptoms as well as an opportunity to review and make small changes to working practices can have an enormously positive impact for everyone. The training programmes created by Kathyrn for SimplyHormones aim to make a difference:
“Menopause can be tamed from every angle in a few simple steps. Sickness absence can be reduced and productivity levels improved by understanding menopause a little where managers can signpost and support their female staff.
Other key factors can be identified such as looking at flexible working, flexible loo breaks, collaborating to create uniforms with a lighter fabric that is still able to fulfil the needs of active police and fire officers, for instance. The kit carried by fire-arms officers is very heavy, can this be reviewed? Some organisations have thought about improving the accessibility of sanitary products. It’s not just about having a useful fan (although that helps), I also know that women would like to see changes to fitness requirements in their own organisations.
Women have significant and different needs because they are born with a reproductive system that gives them aggravation throughout their reproductive years and more so at menopause: heavy bleeding, loo breaks, sweating (in some cases drenching). At the moment, women are coping alone. By the same token, they don’t want a light shone on these issues, they just want to get on with their jobs and do them well. It’s time to acknowledge that women’s needs can be quite different from those of men.”
Some might consider that this might be another case of pushing the female agenda but with the emotional turmoil that comes with menopause, it is important to understand and recognise what is happening so as to avoid falling foul of employment legislation by trying to ‘manage out’ otherwise productive and loyal staff:
“Situations arise where you may have women becoming angry or emotional in the workplace; they may be excellent workers at other times but all of a sudden, they just go crazy for short periods of time and the women aren’t understanding it and the managers aren’t understanding it so there is a clash there, as you can imagine! The managers are going to HR and are saying – this is fact – ‘I want this woman managed out!’. So we then go down the disciplinary route. Women are losing their voices because they’re going through menopause and can’t vocalise what’s really going on, especially if they’re in an even more stressful situation where they have to defend themselves and justify what’s going on when they can’t really explain it.”
There have been tribunal cases brought against employers under both the disability act (Davies vs Scottish Courts and Tribunal Service SCTS (2018 -) https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/5afc31a8ed915d0de80ffd2c/Ms_M_Davies_v_Scottish_Courts_and_Tribunals_Service_4104575_2017_Final.pdf and sex discrimination act (Merchant v BT, 2012) Dismissal without taking account of menopause symptoms – discriminatory and unfair, Pure Employment Law (May 2012) https://www.pureemploymentlaw.co.uk/dismissal-without-taking-account-of-menopause-symptoms-discriminatory-and-unfair/ where the tribunal has found in favour of the women as the very real and debilitating effects of the menopause had not been given due consideration by the employers.
Embarrassment and unwillingness to discuss the menopause is understandable – it is very personal and intimate. With the Nuffield Health survey reporting that 72% of those questioned feeling unsupported at work, it is little wonder that Kathryn’s workshops are well received. The business has evolved from a starting point of telling stories to now providing a workplace tool kit for individual women as well as managers making it easier for them to support women in their teams. SimplyHormones is also in the unique position of being able to offer online versions of all her learning/training programmes which are proving very popular where staff are remotely located. The economic value of recognising and supporting women through the menopause was acknowledged when the Government published a research report in 2017 https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/menopause-transition-effects-on-womens-economic-participation which shows the beneficial return on investment of at least three-fold once employers embark on workplace training.
With no medical training, Kathryn became the first and only ever lay person to be appointed to the medical advisory committee of the British Menopause Society which is testament to the success and tireless work Kathryn has done (and continues to do) to ensure that both women and men are better informed as to what the menopause can involve when the effects are both extreme or mild. In a room full of “ologies”, Kathryn sees herself as there to learn and provide the ‘focus from the factory floor’ so to speak.
Kathryn’s passion for all things menopause shows no signs of abating and she is currently writing a book which will be launching next year to coincide with International Women’s Day. All the indications are that it will be a best seller. Period.