by Louise Griffiths
I was one of those people who knew from the age of 15 that I wanted to work in Human Resources, knowing that I wanted to work with and ‘help people’. After leaving University with a degree in Business Administration, I returned to Gloucestershire and secured a junior HR role with a leading Financial Services organisation and the rest as they say is history! Over the last 25 years I have had a hugely enjoyable HR career and worked in a number of industries including the financial services within the City of London, healthcare and scientific research. I was fortunate enough in my career to travel business class to such exciting locations as San Francisco and Hong Kong and in my 30s was having the time of my life.
The last senior role I had was working full time as Head of HR for a large organisation for several years and enjoyed the challenge and stimulation of working alongside fellow senior professionals.
However, in 2019, it all changed around the same time I experienced a sudden parental bereavement, which happened in the same week my eldest child started primary school. Almost overnight I started experiencing debilitating anxiety and panic attacks and generally becoming fearful of everything. I initially linked these to grief and juggling full time work, two young children, the extended process of probate and so on. I thought what I was experiencing would pass and carried on whilst still struggling.
Instead of them passing, my symptoms only got worse, particularly within the working environment. I recall having a panic attack at work one Friday lunchtime in the work restaurant after a particularly busy week. Whilst queuing up I started to experience dizziness and feeling unsteady and had an overwhelming fear that I was going to collapse. I didn’t, however the whole experience really troubled me. I was a senior member of staff; how would it look if I collapsed and brought attention to myself?
Additionally, I recall experiencing a panic attack during a senior management meeting and didn’t feel I could say anything or bring attention to myself as I was presenting on an important agenda topic. Again, this episode hugely affected me and subsequently starting the process of myself losing confidence and the never-ending spiral of scenarios based around ‘what ifs’.
Shortly after this I finally acknowledged I wasn’t ok, and my GP signed me off with anxiety. Before I was able to process what was happening to me, Covid came along, which of course saw us all having to spend a lot of time at home and away from the workplace. My world, along with others, became a lot smaller during lockdown and once initial restrictions were eased, I then started experiencing anxiety and panic in public spaces including shops, parks etc and I would only feel safe if I was near my car. This extended to extreme anxiety about queuing up to collect my eldest child from school, which resulted in some days barely being able to get out of the car and having to rely on my husband for support. This continued into the next academic year when my second child started school. I eventually explained my anxiety to the teacher who suggested I could ‘queue jump’. As the classroom had a side door, it was arranged that I would stand by this door, and they would have my child ready for me to collect them. Whist this hugely helped I felt very self-conscious and exceptionally frustrated that I couldn’t physically queue with all the other parents. I couldn’t break the cycle of panic that overwhelmed me every day and most days I would worry about having to collect them.
Around this time, I also developed a fear of driving which would result in panic if I got stuck in traffic, anything from roundabouts to traffic lights and avoided motorways. I was left feeling overwhelmed, lonely and totally bewildered as to where my identity had gone. What was wrong with me that meant I couldn’t get out of the car and get my child from school? It was like there was a brick wall stopping me and my confidence and independence hit rock bottom.
My company were very supportive of my situation, and I felt relieved when I negotiated a return to work in a newly designed part-time role with no line management responsibility. I thought that this would mean it would help my symptoms, but unfortunately, they continued. By this time my panic attacks worsened and were on an almost daily basis. I became fearful of leaving the house and would experience a panic attack if I was at home on my own.
Around this time, an old school friend, who was aware of how bad my anxiety was, called me one day and left an urgent message to call her. She said that she’d just been speaking to a colleague who was talking about her menopause journey and wanted to share her story. She said ‘this sounds just like Louise’ as her story was so similar to mine. She said to me ‘do you think you might be perimenopausal’ and when she explained that this lady had experienced debilitating anxiety, including panic when driving, I immediately thought, ‘yes! It’s a thing, I can do something about this’! The lightbulb moment had started…
At that moment I felt a stirring of the old me returning; curious, a glimmer of excitement and a huge feeling of relief. Maybe I could take control of what was happening to me.To start moving forwards, I arranged to speak to my GP and thought that call would the answer. By this time, I was 45. Putting all my hopes into this phone call, when I spoke to them, they literally said “you’re a bit young” to be perimenopausal and was offered anti-depressants for the anxiety – I never took them – I was anxious, not depressed. My blood test was inconclusive, so I was left feeling I was making a fuss and wasn’t perimenopausal at all. My awareness of the menopause was so limited that I didn’t realise that you still had periods during your perimenopause. I had a colleague who was having hot flushes and said that I couldn’t be menopausal as I wasn’t having them too. The awareness around the menopause wasn’t there within the organisation, so again I talked myself out of it.
I eventually left my job in 2021 as I felt I wasn’t able to commit to the job due to my symptoms not getting any better. I recall feeling what on earth am I going to do? I had lost my identity, my focus and motivation and felt isolated and alone.
My breakthrough came after watching the Davina McCall programme on the menopause. For the first time I watched a programme where other women shared similar stories and I felt empowered enough to go back to the GP. I also downloaded the Balance app and could see a pattern in my symptoms. In advance of my call with the GP early last year, I’d educated myself around hormones and symptoms, making copious notes I could refer to and felt so much more confident. I spoke to the same GP who’d previously told me in 2020 that I was too young. They said that they would look at HRT for me and that I would need to go away and do my own research. When we reconvened, she literally said to me ‘what have you decided on’!! I was very emotional after the call. My voice had been heard and listened to. I was taking back control and truly felt I could start to get my life back on track.
My menopause journey has had a positive outcome. After starting HRT, which was the right route for me, I started to regain my confidence and independence. I recall the first time I noticed the anxiety had lost its power. It was my children’s sports day last Summer and I felt elated when I realised that I was there and wasn’t feeling anxious. I can’t tell you how empowered I felt.
Shortly afterwards, I retrained as a coach and attained a certificate in coaching, now specialising in menopause coaching, specifically focused on keeping women at work. From all the research and surveys produced, the statistics around women who have experienced a similar journey is shocking. The Fawcett Society report in 2022 on menopause in the workplace found that 1 in 10 of women have left the workplace due to their menopause journey – I am one of them.
What I didn’t known when I was started experiencing my symptoms is that every woman will have different menopause symptoms. Alongside the more well-known symptoms such as hot flushes, brain fog and changes in periods, there are also other less well-known symptoms. From my own menopause journey, I now acknowledge that early on, I also experienced symptoms such as vertigo, itchy skin, new allergies (tree pollen), ligament pain, tinnitus alongside the anxiety and panic attacks. Looking back to the experience I had in the work restaurant; I now realise that I was experiencing vertigo. I wasn’t going to collapse. Similarly, the panic attack symptoms I experienced in a senior management meeting passed. If I’d known then what I know now, then I would have walked away from the restaurant queue. I would have excused myself from the senior management meeting and returned when my panic has dispersed. All simple advice now, but when you’re in the thick of it, it can be very distressing and overwhelming.
So, what’s the solution to keep women at work? Menopause education is hugely needed, not just to embed the awareness within the organisational culture, but opening doors of communication for an individual to access the support they need. Overall, I’m enthused by how menopause awareness is starting to embed itself into UK organisations. Take into account that there are 4.5 million women of menopausal age (45-55 on average) in the UK workplace and women over 50 are the fastest growing demographic in the UK. The Women and Equality committee report 2022 recommendations were published at the end of January this year. Whilst they won’t consider making menopause the 10th protected characteristic under the 2010 Equality Act, they made several recommendations, including appointing a Menopause Ambassador, Helen Tomlinson. This appointment will ensure that menopause is brought to the front of the agenda supporting women in the workplace across all UK organisations. I also feel strongly that I don’t want younger women to be fearful or scared of the menopause as when their time arrives the awareness will be out there, and support will be available for them.
l am passionate about raising awareness, ensuring women going forwards feel less isolated and along and re-gain their voice so they can take back control.
My menopause coaching programme is specifically designed to keep women at work. The programme ensures that each client understands what symptoms they are experiencing, how it is affecting them and how they can track them to note a pattern. We then devise an action plan designed to get the support they need at work to ensure they can continue working within their organisation. By exploring the impact of how your symptoms are affecting you at work, I can help you to take back control of your menopause. This will leave you feeling educated and empowered, ensuring you are able to continue working in your organisation.
October is World Menopause Month with Wednesday 18 October being World Menopause Day. Rather than women feeling they have to leave due to lack of awareness in their organisations and lack of support, I truly hope now that there is a tipping balance whereby women will ask their organisations the question of “what are you doing to do to support me?”, rather than feel they have no choice but to leave and hope their symptoms get better.
For more information, please visit www.louisegriffithscoaching.com