‘Dear Helena, how can I stop menopausal brain fog from harming my career?’

middle-aged woman looking thoughtful and slightly anxious, looking into the distance
middle-aged woman looking thoughtful and slightly anxious, looking into the distance

If you have a question you would like Helena to answer, get in touch at helena.morrissey@telegraph.co.uk.

In her regular column, The Telegraph’s Helena Morrissey has provided advice on how to maintain a career and a family, how to overcome imposter syndrome and shared what she likes and detests about the CVs she receives.

Today, she is answering a question from a Telegraph reader who’s recently set up her own business, but is struggling with the toll her menopausal brain fog has had on her mind and confidence.

Dear Helena,

I’ve enjoyed reading your Telegraph articles, thanks.

I’m in my early 50s and starting my own search and recruitment agency for HR professionals. I can’t seem to fake the confidence I faked in my 30s and 40s, and I’m okay with that, partly.

I have a genuine love of recruitment. I do a very good job of it, but previous burnout and menopause brain fog have taken their toll on my mind and confidence. There’s a lot of business development to do, and I want businesses to know I’m not just a safe pair of hands, I’m 100pc all in with high standards. I want to sound confident when I don’t always feel it.

I wondered if you had any advice on those initial business introductions, any tips on remembering the terms I need (brain fog) in my work without referring to my whiteboard. It’s my first business and a huge deal to me right now, I want to get it right.

Any advice you can give would be really appreciated (understatement of 2024).

– Shelley

Dear Shelley,

Thank you for writing in. Your predicament is very familiar. I can reassure you that there are specific steps you can take to overcome your self-doubts and successfully grow your business.

You’ve already taken the first step by acknowledging the problem and deciding to take action. You recognise that your current lack of confidence stems from self-perceptions rather than the reality of what you can achieve.

Academic research suggests that women tend to underestimate their abilities, while men often overestimate theirs. The confidence gap begins early – a study on “The Gender Confidence Gap in Fractions Knowledge” for example uncovered gender disparities in self-assurance around maths abilities in students as young as 12, “even though gender gaps in achievements were almost non-existent”.

Overconfidence is not always a good thing. Having the “courage of our convictions” is unhelpful if those convictions are misguided. But success in business often depends as much on confidence as competence, regardless of whether that confidence is justified.

Both clients and colleagues tend to place more confidence in individuals who exude confidence themselves. Female self-doubt is not just an obstacle to success in our own minds but can also have a tangible impact on our careers.

Your letter contains the kernel of the solution. Or rather, the multiple layers of a solution.

For a start, you know about “faking it til you make it” – you’ve just forgotten how. What’s more, you are committed to your work and clients and believe you do a “very good job”. You love what you do. You really do have much to feel confident about.

Self-confidence isn’t necessarily an innate characteristic. It can be learned, and – like any acquired skill – can be strengthened and improved with practice.

I am a testament to that. As a young woman, I was very shy. These days, people assume I am outgoing and confident because, for someone in finance, I have a relatively high profile. But that profile isn’t something I sought – it came about as a result of founding the 30% Club in 2010.

The financial crisis created an opportunity to shake up Britain’s boardrooms, but I needed media coverage to amplify the message. Engaging with the press and appearing on radio or TV was a means to an end. Initially, I was very nervous. But each appearance felt a little less scary, and gradually, I began to feel more confident – not just when promoting the 30% Club.

I’m telling you this because even though you say you can no longer “fake it”, I bet you can. Just don’t rush it. Take one step at a time, observe your progress, and then proceed with another step until it becomes second nature.

You mention “brain fog” several times and attribute it to menopause. Again, that’s not unusual, and your symptoms may be psychological as well as physical. Here, I am obviously speaking from personal experience rather than as a medical practitioner.

I realise now, at 58-years-old, that part of my struggle with menopause was related to how I felt it undermined my sense of womanhood.

That may sound ridiculous since all women go through it, but there is a definite “before” and “after” delineation – along with expectations of a physical “glow-down”.

In my case, I was also job-hunting, having just stepped down from my last full-time role, and then lockdown descended. A perfect storm. After decades of slowly building up my self-esteem, it felt diminished overnight.

Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) helped me manage the physical symptoms, but it took longer to accept the “new and not so improved” version of myself. Being engaged, busy, and actively using your mind can help alleviate brain fog.

While it may not disappear overnight, over time you may reach a point where you forget you even have it. (And then, lo and behold, you don’t). Remember, you are not merely trying to return to your previous state – especially if that resulted in burnout.

Congratulations on making the exciting decision to start your own business! You are very well-qualified, with a proven track record. You are “100pc in”. You will cherish client relationships and assist candidates throughout the process. That is all wonderful.

So what if you forget a word from time to time? I suspect no one will notice – they won’t even know which word you were intending to use.

When it comes to introductory business meetings, resist the temptation to over-script your lines. Instead, jot down a few bullet points summarising the essential points you need to convey.

Prepare for the meeting as you normally would by researching the company and the individuals who will be present. Then practise in front of a friend or family member – someone you trust, who has your best interests at heart, and will give you honest and constructive feedback.

My children are good for that! And if they aren’t convinced after the first rehearsal, their eventual praise will mean so much more. Remember, your authenticity will inspire trust and confidence much more than recited lines – or, for that matter, blustery swagger.

If you worry that your body language or voice might betray insecurities, watch voice coach Patsy Rodenburg’s YouTube videos. Patsy is a mesmerising performer herself. Her advice on how to establish a connection with those you are talking to – whether that’s one person or a group – is immensely beneficial.

She explains how to physically prepare for meetings to stay centred and how to project without being shouty. Her talks are immensely confidence-boosting.

And finally, to reiterate, please be yourself. In my extensive experience, there is a real scarcity of search consultants who take your approach. If you can convey your genuine passion for recruitment, your services will be in high demand.

But not every firm will hire you. Think of those “failed” presentations as valuable experience. Ask for feedback, take it on board, and celebrate progress, even if it’s just getting closer to winning new mandates. If you look at charts of how any successful business started out, it is rare to see a “hole in one” or a straight-line growth trajectory.

It may take a few attempts to succeed, but I am very confident that you will. I wish you all the best.