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How Network Rail is starting difficult conversations to address workplace taboos

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Creating more diverse, inclusive workplaces will require everyone to have some difficult conversations. Discussions to address gender equality, the industry’s ageing workforce and mental health have all found their voice but there are many hidden issues that are trying to make themselves heard.

At the beginning of October, Network Rail organised a series of sessions for Everyone Week – an awareness event devised to explain the relevance of diversity and inclusion to the more than 30,000 people Network Rail employs.

The Everyone Week programme is based around the nine protected characteristics defined by the Equality Act 2010: age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation.

Working with Network Rail’s six employee networks, the diversity and inclusion team arranged sessions on a number of topics which often aren’t discussed openly in the workplace, such as epilepsy, domestic abuse and deaf awareness.

“The problem is, if we don’t talk about it we won’t ever overcome some of those issues,” said diversity and inclusion project manager Karen Venn, speaking after a session about menopause at Network Rail’s Quadrant headquarters in Milton Keynes.

Gap in awareness

Karen and her colleague Janet Trowse, who is head of HR for System Operator, have both been managing menopausal symptoms for a number of years and established the menopause programme in 2017 to address a gap in awareness and create a support network for women within the business.

Karen said: “It’s about those difficult conversations and this is probably one of many difficult conversations but the more we start to tackle those difficult conversations the more it’s going to be easier for people to go to their line manager for support and help.”

Earlier this year, Network Rail launched its 20by20 project, which seeks to increase the percentage of women within the business to 20 per cent by 2020. This, coupled with the fact that more and more women are working later into life, means the issues associated with menopause are likely to become more pronounced.

Janet and Karen believe it’s important for women, and men, to understand the effect the menopause can have on women so that reasonable adjustments can be made to help manage the symptoms. Examples may include flexible working hours or even just providing a desktop fan.

“There is a certain amount of stigma attached with going through menopause,” said Janet. “For women it can have quite an impact on your self-esteem and you can get very confident women who start to suffer anxiety issues, loss of confidence.”

What is the menopause?

The menopause is defined quite literally as the day after a woman has gone 12 months without a period. The post-menopause stage can see women experiencing symptoms such as hot and cold flushes, mood alterations and memory issues caused by an imbalance in the levels of oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone. The symptoms can last for several years and the severity can vary from woman to woman.

While most women will experience menopausal symptoms between the ages of 45 and 55, it’s not uncommon for symptoms to occur much younger. Around one in a hundred women will experience menopause before the age of 40 and one in 10,000 women will experience it as a teenager.

World Menopause Awareness Day is being held on 18 October to raise awareness of the associated health risks that accompany the menopause. Women naturally lose bone density following the menopause and are at higher risk of developing heart disease.

The session at Quadrant MK included a presentation from Rachel Shaw, who was representing Network Rail’s employee assistance programme (EAP) provider Validium, and a talk by Deborah Garlick, founder of Henpicked.net – a lifestyle website aimed at women over 40 – and Menopause in the Workplace.

When it comes down to managing the menopause a lot of women wait until it becomes too much, said Deborah.

“There’s so much help, so many things, very practical things that could be done to manage symptoms.”

L-R: Deborah Garlick, Richard Peters, Janet Trowse, Karen Venn and Rachel Shaw.
L-R: Deborah Garlick, Richard Peters, Janet Trowse, Karen Venn and Rachel Shaw.

Taboo and stigma

Nearly 40 per cent of all female employees that leave Network Rail are aged between 40 and 60. Network Rail’s chief medical officer and the programme’s sponsor, Richard Peters, believes a lack of support and understanding about the menopause could be a factor.

“What I do know is the amount of people that are reporting gynaecological and pregnancy related conditions is very low. I mean together it probably doesn’t even hit one per cent of the reason for sickness absence. But what you need to consider is the secondary conditions that result from the menopause.”

While there is more to do, he believes Network Rail is doing a lot of things right. “I think a lot of organisations aren’t that far ahead and haven’t produced the basic documents but what we’re trying to do is take it a step further by ensuring the education is there, the awareness is there and that people feel comfortable to talk about a normal physiological response which has so much taboo and stigma associated with it.”

Karen and Janet have so far hosted focus groups in Wales, Swindon, York, Leeds and Milton Keynes to promote menopause awareness. They have also launched a video on the Safety Central web portal which explains more about the menopause and managing symptoms.

The pair have presented to a working group in Milton Keynes which gives women a forum to discuss any concerns and talk openly about their experiences. They hope that more of these support networks can be set up around the business to help women in the same way the programme has helped them. Karen and Janet didn’t know each other before working together on the programme but have established a strong friendship through a shared experience.

“I know that I can send a little emoticon on a WhatsApp to Karen and Karen will know instantly that I’m having a rubbish day and vice versa,” said Janet. “It’s extraordinarily important. We may have to be swans in the workplace with what we do, but we’re peddling hard underneath.”

For more information visit www.safety.networkrail.co.uk and click on the menopause section within the Health and Wellbeing tab. Network Rail employees also have access to free 24/7 guidance and counselling support through the Validium EAP programme. Contact 0800 358 4858 for more information.

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