Accenture: breaking the menopause taboo

Sarah Garton talks menopause and Accenture's steps to support female employees

Every woman experiences menopause, yet it is rarely talked about. But increased publicity, including Davina McCall’s acclaimed TV documentary, has shed light on the struggles that women go through and bust the myths around menopause. Like McCall, Sarah Garton, a managing director, at Accenture UK, began ‘the change’ in her early 40s.

Initially, she attributed the hot flushes, mood swings and depression to a lack of self-esteem following promotion to managing director. Thanks to an “epiphany” moment at work, Garton was soon back to her original, confident self and is helping to blaze a trail to support her female colleagues.

First, can you describe your journey?

I started with physical symptoms in my early 40s. I would often sit in meetings feeling a boiling heat, particularly when I was under pressure or nervous about something. I would have emotional outbursts and I couldn’t sleep at night. I would walk into a room, walk out, then remember what I went for and go back in to get it. Plus, I had an overwhelming urge to cry at the slightest disappointment. Whereas I’d been able to juggle and spin multiple plates in the past, I was suddenly struggling to keep one plate going. I didn’t associate my symptoms as menopausal; I thought it would happen in my 50s. My husband and my kids never knew what they would get when I walked through the door.

What impact did it have at work?

The hot sweats, the emotion, lack of ability to spin plates started within a year of my promotion to managing director. I lost confidence, and my esteem was at an all-time low. I felt anxious and did not connect the menopause to my feelings. I just latched on to the idea that I’d been promoted above my ability. I put on an outward face of being fine, and, inwardly, I was struggling. My motivation crashed, and I couldn’t concentrate. I was angry, upset and aggressive with zero filters, a bit like a teenager going through puberty. And I put it down to having a bigger role, the expectations that came with it and then suffering from declining mental health and depression.

Is there a family history of early menopause?

My mum told me that she was about my age when she went through it. I remember thinking that, if I’d have tried to conceive my children in my 30s, I might not have been able to. Knowing your genetic history around menopause is so important. I’ve told my daughter – who’s 23 – so that she doesn’t leave having children too much later if she wants them. There’s a real need to have these conversations within the family.

Did anybody at Accenture recognise what you were going through?

Not at the time. I’d never heard the word menopause at work. But, about three years ago, I was in our London office, and I saw a poster advertising a “Breaking the Taboo talk: Let’s Talk About Menopause” session. Firstly, I was gobsmacked that there were between 70 and 80 people were in the room. And then it hit me that I wasn’t alone. A colleague realised that we needed to talk about the menopause at Accenture, arranged for menopause experts including Dr Louise Newson and Saska Graville to lead a panel discussion. They spoke about the impact and symptoms of menopause and how we associate what we’re feeling with big life changes. Effectively, they were describing me, and I realised that the timing of my promotion coincided directly with me being perimenopausal or menopausal. And that was my epiphany.

How did you react?

I burst into tears, not because I was upset but because I was so grateful to be in a room full of people who understood. Dr Newson also busted all the myths around HRT. I remembered the horror stories in the media, and I was worried about breast cancer. I went to my doctor’s surgery armed with all I needed to convince them to put me on HRT.

Based on your experience, what advice would you give to other women?

Do the research. It really is about educating yourself and telling your GP you are menopausal. Dr Newson lists the points you should discuss with your GP on her website. There has also been an uptick in the number of GPs taking additional training on treating menopause and more awareness. For me, HRT was the best option.

What difference has HRT made to you?

For me, a massive difference. The fog lifted, I stopped being out of phase, I was sleeping better, and I was much more on my game at work. I regained my confidence and my self-esteem. A doctor said something that resonated. If your body suddenly stopped producing insulin, you wouldn’t not replace it. If your body stopped producing thyroxin, you wouldn’t not replace it – because of the physical and mental impacts if you didn’t. So why wouldn’t women not want to replace oestrogen?

You said that HRT is not for everyone but what are the alternatives?

There are people, including Dr Newson, providing support on HRT alternatives, but it’s not an area I have experience in.

What support is Accenture now offering to women going through menopause?

Since that epiphany moment, I’ve been working with a fantastic team of colleagues to create momentum and movement within our business so that we don’t just talk about menopause once a year on World Menopause Day but that it is a thread that runs through our whole health and wellbeing agenda. We set up the MenoWarriors site, which has articles, research and links to all our wellbeing support for women going through menopause. Most recently, we’ve set up MenoPAUSE, where, every month, we hold a session for women to share their stories. Then we try and get an expert to come and talk about a very specific theme or angle.

Are there male allies?

Yes, male allies are important. It was a male managing director who actually helped set up that first Breaking the Taboo session because of his experience of menopause through his mother, sister and wife. He knows that it is very difficult for sons, spouses and brothers to watch the menopause happen to the people they love. Equally, he has a team full of women, and he wants to know how to best support them. We’ve had several men join our MenoWarriors group, partly to educate themselves and partly because they also want to support the women in their families and teams.

Apart from regularly speaking about menopause year-round, what other things should companies do?

Be action-oriented and have sessions that people can attend. Conversations at work are essential. Accenture has a tailored medical cover provision that includes support for menopause symptoms. In general, we’re seeing more organisations do more to support menopause at work, but I still think there’s a long way to go.

What is the danger of organisations ignoring menopause?

Women between the ages of 37 and 55 are among the largest demographics in the workplace, but one in four going through menopause quit. Not because work doesn’t support them, but because there are still so many myths to bust around menopause.  You only start to learn about it when you start to experience it. Some people joining our group are young graduates wanting to support their mothers going through menopause, but they’re also educating themselves for the future.

Finally, what is the main message you’d like to get across?

Education and awareness. The more we talk about it and break down the taboo around menopause, the less there will be a stigma around it, the more women will educate themselves and they will be able to make the transition because they’re taking the action that they need.

Sarah Garton is a managing director at Accenture UK.

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