Discussing topics like the menopause is not always easy, especially in the workplace. Yet, starting a conversation doesn’t have to be awkward and being a source of support for a co-worker can make a huge difference in how they feel.
The main thing to consider when talking about women's health issues, is that the conversation needs to be safe, discreet and handled with sensitivity.
Whether you want to open up to a manager, or provide support to someone you know at work, here are a few tips:
1. Pave the way
Many people find talking in person nerve-wracking and intimidating for a number of reasons. This is even more understandable with personal issues such as reproductive health. But it doesn’t need to stop a conversation altogether. You could send a brief email to set up a face-to- face meeting and provide some information on your symptoms. In doing this, you remove the element of surprise and potential awkwardness for the other person, whilst paving the way for a meaningful conversation.
Equally, if you want to start a conversation with someone who you feel may be struggling at work, you could try this:
You: How are you?
Colleague: I’m fine. Yeah, I’m ok thank you.
You: Ok, how are you really?
This simple technique is incredibly effective in encouraging ‘real’ conversation. Try it. You’ll be amazed at the way people share how they are actually feeling, rather than how they think they should be feeling.
2. Find an appropriate time & place
With the constant demands of the day to day, it can be incredibly difficult to find time to talk at work. But often there are times within the day to create space for a conversation. For instance, being in the car together on the way to see a client, over lunch, when you’re walking somewhere…the day is filled with potential. It’s just about reframing situations as an opportunity to talk. Some of these scenarios have the added benefit of ‘side by side’ talking. This can feel more relaxed than face to face conversations, which can often be perceived as formal, confrontational or rigid. Not ideal when discussing personal issues.
3. Ask gentle questions
Because of the lack of general awareness on women’s health, it is fair to say that many people don’t know much about it. As a result, asking questions can provide a gateway to understanding something that you have absolutely no knowledge of. All too often we are afraid to do this, for fear of seeming intrusive. Just be mindful not to get too personal to the point where someone is made to feel uncomfortable. Equally, if you are being asked questions, try to see this as a person trying to understand what you are going through, and not necessarily as an interrogation.
4. Take it seriously and show empathy
Whilst it may be difficult to understand what someone is going through, try to put yourself in their shoes. To be open about personal health issues takes a lot of courage and one of the worst things that can happen is for another person to trivialise the issue or not believe what is being said. Unfortunately, this is often the case with ‘invisible’ conditions. Show empathy by giving your full attention, listening carefully and providing comfort and reassurance when needed.
5. Treat people as ‘living with’ not ‘suffering from’
When it comes to menstrual and reproductive health, women don’t want to be treated as weak, incompetent or incapable. Because, they're not. As such, it is important to understand the difference between living with a condition, rather than suffering from it. Yes, people may need additional support at times, but it does not mean that they cannot cope or do their job effectively. After all, they may have been coping silently for years.
6. Expect emotion
In many cases, it takes people a long time to build up the emotional strength to have a conversation about a health condition. When this does eventually happen, it can act as an emotional floodgate. Years of built up anxiety may be released, which can often result in crying. This is a perfectly normal reaction and it is important to treat it as such. If someone is upset, try to comfort them or provide them with a tissue. Take them to a quiet place if you aren’t in one already. Reassure them by telling them that it’s understandable to be emotional. And take a little comfort in the fact that you are witnessing a positive step in the healing process.