We need to be talking about the menopause: Q&A with MD, Niki Hunter-Ekins

October is World Menopause Awareness Month but, even though women make up the majority in the PR industry (68%, PRCA Census 2020*), menopause is still not something that is openly talked about, in some cases still considered ‘taboo’. With the industry seeking to improve its approach to diversity and inclusion, we must aim for everyone to be heard, and their wellbeing taken into consideration. Menopause affects a larger proportion of the current PR workforce than we might think. Fortunately for us, our amazing MD Niki, has kindly shared her experience so far, conveying the important message that everyone should do their own research, to understand the many different symptoms and experiences that half of the population can expect to go through at some point in life.  

1. How has your experience of the menopause been so far? 

I was one of those who thought I wouldn’t have to think about menopause until my mid 50s – and wow, was I wrong! I was probably peri-menopausal for two years before I was diagnosed, aged 46.  

To be honest, I was clueless – I thought of it as just stopping periods, getting more wrinkles, putting on weight, having hot flushes and not sleeping. And, while they are all real symptoms that make you feel old, frustrated, and irrelevant, I came to learn there are many more challenging aspects to menopause that would have a real impact on my home and work life.  

Before I’d pieced together what was going on, I felt that my life was so out of control that I resigned from my job. But I’m one of the lucky ones – I’d been with Splendid for years and our CEO Alec knows me well, we have a great working relationship. He listened to how I was feeling, asked me to reconsider, and so I did. 

A couple of weeks later I went to a hormone specialist who, when I told her everything, could tell I was perimenopausal before I even took the tests. She advised me to not make a rash decision about my career before working through what my plan for this was and advising me on the treatment options available, including HRT.  

My mum had died early from breast cancer, so she explained the heightened risks of HRT for me. But when I looked at the odds, I made the decision that having the chance to enjoy my life now was worth the small percentage uplift in risk. I’m not a doctor and everyone needs to decide what’s right for them, but for me it was life changing. Within a couple of weeks of treatment, I started to feel like myself again. And years on, I’m still happily in my role at Splendid. 

Don’t get me wrong, there are times when a variety of the symptoms raise their head again, but I now know what it is and can work through it. 

2. What symptoms impact the most in your everyday life and work, and how? 

Memory was a hard one. From not remembering things I’d agreed with people at work (and then being paranoid that they were trying to get one over on me) through to grappling around for words.  

Before being diagnosed, I would be in meetings where I felt like I couldn’t string a sentence together, the words just wouldn’t come to my mind. I couldn’t even remember a one-time, six-digit passcode I’d been texted, without writing it down. It was so bad I started worrying that I was getting early onset dementia. 

I lacked confidence in my abilities and decisions, sending my imposter syndrome into overdrive. Then at home there was irrational rage, of which my husband bore the brunt, but teammates also got some sharp words at times. 

Being tired, angry, and unconfident do not fit the requirements of a role that requires you to lead and inspire a team, perform in a pitch meeting, think on your feet and be creative. Finding solutions and ways of working through it are key and being at a company where you can talk about it openly, without fear, is essential. 

3. How do you think employers should help colleagues experiencing the menopause? 

Read up on the topic and understand the physical and mental challenges. Employers gaining understanding will lead to ways to support women. 

Make sure women feel they can talk to someone about their challenges and discuss any changes to their role they might need. Everyone’s menopause journey is different so, in my view, one on one conversations will always be a higher priority than broad brush policies.  

As part of our well-being programme at Splendid, we have breathing and relaxation sessions, which I find fantastic for keeping me grounded. We are also running workshops under the umbrella ‘Feeling Human at Work’ which includes areas such as Feel Calm, Connected, Mindful and Inspired.  

4. In an industry dominated by women, why do you think there has not been much talk, up until now, about the menopause? 

It has always been a behind closed doors conversation – for decades when it was discussed, it usually took the form of men joking about women ‘going through the change’ and never in a positive way. When at risk of ridicule, why would we talk about it?  

As you get closer to 50 you start to think about the longevity of your career. In an industry that typically looks to younger generations to see what’s trending and culturally relevant, you start to wonder how much longer you can stay relevant. The additional challenges that come with menopause add to the insecurity. You need an environment that nurtures and values opinions from a diverse set of people to encourage everyone to speak up without feeling they are taking any risk.  

5. Why do you think its beneficial to open the conversation about the menopause within the PR industry? 

I recently read an article saying a quarter of women with serious menopause symptoms leave their job**. Women in their mid to late 40s have 20 to 30 years of experience and invaluable knowledge – for a quarter to give up their jobs leaves a huge talent gap to fill.  

Opening the conversation, and colleagues understanding the challenges women go through at this time of life, is key to finding solutions, so we don’t lose great minds and experience from the industry. 

6. Do you have any tips or advice for colleagues yet to experience the menopause? 

Read up on it so you’re not caught out or, like me, delay dealing with it for years through lack of knowledge. There are women out there breaking the stigma by talking about it open and honestly. Davina McCall, Meg Matthews, and Mariella Frostrup have publicly told their stories in honest ways and that has helped give women a voice and stop being scared. Their advice, plus Dr Louise Newson (The Menopause Dr) have been invaluable. 

Get into good sleep, eating and exercise habits now, they will help you in the long run.  

Speak to a medical professional. It’s well documented that a lot of women are not getting the treatment they need when they go to their GP, so keep pushing if you’re not feeling heard. I feel fortunate to have a fantastic consultant who doesn’t sugar coat anything and gives good advice. 

7. How could colleagues be sensitive to someone experiencing menopause? 

I feel lucky to be unafraid of talking about the fact that I am peri-menopausal and on HRT with colleagues, which gives them context and insight should I be having a bad day. I also have a set of peers that are always happy to talk or lend a hand when it gets too much. For those who aren’t as open, be patient with them. 

*PRCA Census 2020