The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Elizabeth Holmes

An inclusive approach to menopause

Support for female teachers experiencing menopause symptoms is key to their wellbeing and retention. Elizabeth Holmes looks at what genuine provision can be put in place to help staff at this stage of their lives and careers.

Menopause, the end of a woman’s menstrual periods, can be a challenging time in a woman’s life.

Usually preceded by what can be a decade of perimenopause, the physical and emotional symptoms thrown up by this natural process can be the source of much anxiety and stress.

Generally occurring between the ages of 45-55, menopause has officially been reached when it has been a year since a woman's last period. This often coincides with increased responsibilities at work for female teachers such as leadership roles, not to mention the parenting and caring responsibilities they may also be juggling.    

New to the public domain

It is only in relatively recent years that menopause has been discussed in the public domain. There is a long tradition of society as a whole not addressing the impact it may have on women, many of whom will be working and contributing to the economy while navigating a myriad of symptoms.

Making sure that menopause has a specific focus in relevant school policies is essential

While there are signs that this is changing (there is more evidence now of open discussion of menopause on social media for example) it is almost certainly the case that some women will be suffering in silence, deeply affected by the changes that are happening for them, and unaware of the support they are entitled to and can access.

Menopause in school policy

Kate Lawson of Element Law is an employment law solicitor with experience in supporting women at this stage of their lives. According to Kate:

It is vital to start the conversation; to break the silence so that employees feel they can speak up about what they are experiencing. Schools should upskill their senior leaders through training on menopause related issues, and raise awareness across their staff base through health campaigns and mention of the menopause in their policies and guidance documents.

Making sure that menopause has a specific focus in relevant school policies is essential. Menopause can affect a woman's health physically and mentally, so schools must be aware that adjustments may need to be made to accomodate women.

Kate suggests these could include adjustments to:

  • working hours
  • allow additional breaks
  • allow access to a quiet breakout area
  • lighting and ventilation
  • the provision of councelling services. 

Equality Act 2010

Menopause symptoms are many and varied. Some women will experience none and some may be deeply affected.

As an employee, a woman suffering from severe menopause symptoms may be disabled under the Equality Act 2010.

As Kate explains, this means that reasonable adjustments to their working conditions is a legal obligation. Provision of support to women experiencing menopause symptoms is key to their mental and physical wellbeing, and to ensuring the productivity and retention of older women in the workplace.

Keziah Featherstone, co-founder and strategic leader of @WomenEd and head of Q3 Academy Tipton, is fully aware of this need for care.

From my perspective as a head, you can’t assume a woman of a certain age is going through something, as the menopause can also strike very young. The perimenopause can last years and manifest as forgetfulness, moodiness, being very tired.

I think common sense is to support each individual as much as possible given their individual needs. No two women will be affected the same way. Removing the stigma is essential and therefore, as a female head of that sort of age, I do articulate it a lot to normalise it.

This is an essential step in ensuring that the support offered to teachers affected by the menopause is genuine and not just theoretical. When menopause is talked about and included in relevant school policies we will begin to make positive change.

Managers need to be educated in what the menopause is and how it can affect women physically, emotionally and mentally

To assist schools in this, the National Education Union has recently produced some excellent guides to working through the menopause for members, reps and leaders as well as a model menopause policy. This guidance explains clearly how the experience of menopause may vary from woman to woman and that some groups – trans workers, lesbian, gay and bisexual women, black women, and those women with pre-existing conditions – may also experience additional challenges through menopause.

Medicine

For former headteacher Dr Kenny Frederick, medicine offered a route through the perimenopause.

As soon as I had my first heat flush (I was headteacher at the time) I went to the doctor to get myself tested then onto hormone replacement therapy (HRT), and I have not looked back since (I’m still on it!). From then I had no symptoms & had more energy to carry out my role.

I know many women may not be able to take HRT but for me it worked. My job was hard enough without dealing with the many negative symptoms of menopause!

How else can women be supported?

While medication is an option for some women, it isn't the choice for all. However, there are plenty of other ways women can be supported through the menopause.

Provision of support to women experiencing menopause symptoms is key to their mental and physical wellbeing

Tanith Lee runs a popular support group on Facebook for those facing menopause symptoms. Through her work in this field, she has concluded that there are three main strands to supporting women who are teaching though the perimenopause and the menopause.

1) Menopause awareness

Menopause awareness is key in helping women identify symptoms and help them understand that they are not broken or need fixing. They need reassurance that they are navigating a sometimes tricky natural life stage. A fact sheet with the symptoms, solutions and resources would be helpful. Engage a menopause specialist to deliver a talk or workshop to help the conversation get started.

2) Sharing experiences

There is self-empowerment and support to be found through sharing experience in a supportive and safe environment.

Setting up sessions where women can come together and discuss their symptoms, concerns and solutions is a valuable tool in helping women feel like they are not alone.

3) Educating managers

Male and female managers need to be educated in what the menopause is and how it can affect women physically, emotionally and mentally.

Male managers often find the topic embarrassing and would benefit from clear guidance on how to have a conversation about menstruation, PMS and menopause. They need to be made aware of how some women struggle with brain fog, memory loss, anxiety, exhaustion and heavy periods and how this can impact their performance in their roles.

This support may be ‘just’ to feel understood or it may be more practical solutions like having access to a fan, be able to open windows and control the heating in the winter.

Creating a workplace where wellbeing matters

Menopause is not simply about falling levels of oestrogen and the associated symptoms. The decline and eventual loss of reproductive ability can be incredibly challenging for some women to deal with, regardless of whether they have had children or how old those children are.

That is not to say that such feelings do not affect men also, but if we are to create a workplace where wellbeing really does matter, we are going to need to make sure we have a solid understanding of menopause and the ways in which we can support staff at this stage of their lives and careers. 

Our Supporting Staff Wellbeing conference takes place on Wednesday 27 November 2019 in London.

This event will equip you with invaluable guidance and easy-to-implement strategies to create a whole-school culture that priorities staff wellbeing.

Secure your place.

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