Menopause & Me by MWOTY “Women Making A Difference” Winner Dawn Coker

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October 18th 2022 is World Menopause Day, a day designated by the International Menopause Society (IMS) to raise awareness of the menopause. To mark this day, I’d like to share my menopause journey with you all in the hope of highlighting the importance of workplace support for women of all ages going through this difficult transition.

“When I was 35, crippling pain from endometriosis led to me having a hysterectomy. When the pain continued despite the operation, I had my ovaries removed two years later, which led to surgical menopause at the age of 37.

The first symptom was the hot flushes, which began within a month of surgery. These were the kind that left you with wet sheets at night and wet clothes by day, and really affected my sleep.

Returning to work, I was still recovering, experiencing debilitating symptoms, and my colleagues just didn’t understand or care for what I was going through. I’ be sat in meetings with perspiration dripping down my face, forgetting the names of people who I’d worked with for years, and entering a meeting room to then have a mind blank as to why I was there.

Working in the banking industry at the time, which was male dominated, I felt quite alone in what I was experiencing. The few women that there were just didn’t pay an interest as they were young (like me) and didn’t know what the menopause was.

It was stressful and embarrassing having to manage my symptoms whilst working at full capacity, repeatedly explaining to everyone that I was going through early menopause. My role involved quite a lot of travelling around the UK, and I found this extremely difficult as I was trying to manage my symptoms whilst being constantly on the move. I began to suffer from anxiety, became withdrawn and just not myself.

What I must say is that I was never frightened of having a conversation about menopause with males in the business, that didn’t bother me. What bothered me was the lack of support, how awkward and difficult I was made to feel, and how I had no-one to talk to.

Feeling like I was internally combusting, when in the office I’d ask if I could sit by the window, but it often fell on deaf ears. I’d often say, ‘I’m having a moment’ in a light-hearted way, but in reality, this was no joke.

I developed personal coping strategies to help manage my symptoms whilst at work. These included:

  1. Carrying a small flask filled with ice to relieve the hot flushes
  2. Drawing a picture of the table during meetings so I could refer back to names and job titles to help with brain fog
  3. Jotting down discussion points for upcoming meetings to help me focus
  4. Wearing short-sleeved tops, even in winter, or layering clothing so I could remove as and when a hot flush came on.

After three months of struggling at home and at work, I was prescribed HRT and, whilst my symptoms never completely disappeared, I found maintaining a healthier diet alongside the HRT eased them enough for me to get on with my life. 

At the age of 47, after 10 years on HRT, I was advised to come off it, and my menopausal symptoms returned for a further decade. I had to restart that educational process all over again with my colleagues, justifying my menopausal symptoms, which was so draining.

At the same time, my then husband had an affair and we divorced. I lost my home during the divorce, and ended up moving house eight times, with two children. I was menopausal, and emotionally and physically drained.

Enough was enough! I left the banking sector and moved into the private sector. This is where I finally felt comfortable discussing menopause and I used my experience of managing my own menopause in the workplace to help HR roll out support to staff, especially around female health issues.

In January 2017, at the age of 54, I joined Access2Funding as head of training and bought my own home – I felt like I’d turned my life around! Two years later, I became chief operating officer and a 50% shareholder in the business.

In 2021, I became CEO. I developed and rolled out our menopause policy to encourage open conversations about menopause in the workplace and ensure employees are adequately supported. 

Access2Funding’s menopause policy considers menopausal symptoms as an ongoing health issue, rather than instances of ill health. The policy covers flexible working, workplace adjustments and management training, and is relevant for both females and males within the organisation.

From my experience, it’s important to educate men on the menopause and get them involved in the conversation, too. Education and training are key to breaking the stigma attached to menopause and transforming workplace cultures. Men can use a menopause policy to better understand what may be affecting their colleagues, as well as their wives, partners, mothers, or friends outside work.

As an SME in the financial services industry, I’m particularly proud of our policy and how well received it has been both inside and outside the organisation. Since launching, we’ve had several other businesses across the UK asking us if we can share our policy so they can implement their own, and I’ve spoken at business events to inspire other SMEs to follow suit. 

I’ve also had messages of support sent to me via email and social media. I’ll never forget the lady that reached out to me on LinkedIn and thanked me for raising awareness of early menopause brought about by surgery. Her daughter was in an awful car accident and had to undergo a full hysterectomy because of her injuries, forcing her into menopause at the age of 22. 

I will continue to support women in business and to champion the retention of female talent, with a menopause policy being just one of many ways of achieving this. I like to think I am proof that there is life on the other side of menopause, as inspiration for other women. No woman, whatever their age, should have to suffer in silence.

Earlier this year, Dawn won the ‘Women Making a Difference’ award, sponsored by Harrogate International Advisory, at the Merseyside Women of the Year awards 2022, largely due to her menopause at work efforts.

Image by Wild Kind Photography

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