Is Your School Menopause-Savvy?

What? Why? How?

I can’t go back because I can’t talk to anyone about this.

It’s just too embarrassing.

I don’t know what support I can expect.

My colleagues treat it all as a bit of a joke.

People say I shouldn’t make a fuss because it’s ‘natural’, but I can’t cope.

‘Women’s problems’ have to be discussed in a hushed voice.

None of us dare speak openly about it in case it affects our careers.

School don’t even have a menopause policy.

They really don’t care about women and what we go through.

These are all things that teachers and lecturers have said to me about their menopause. Often they’re telling me because they aren’t telling their colleagues and managers.

What is Menopause?

Briefly, it’s the time when a woman ceases to ovulate, her periods stop and her ovaries stop making oestrogen. That sounds simple enough, but women have oestrogen receptors throughout the body, and the brain. That can cause a host of problems as oestrogen levels fall.

To make matters worse, in perimenopause (the transition before periods have completely stopped) the ovaries tend to sputter and produce oestrogen very unevenly. This means that symptoms constantly change making them even harder to manage. And perimenopause can last from two or three years to a decade. The impact on the body and brain are profound.

Why do schools need to think about it?

Around 1 in 6 teachers in the UK, is likely to be somewhere in the menopausal transition. 9 out of 10 women say that perimenopause and menopause affects their work. You do the maths, as they say. Actually I will! That’s three out of every twenty teachers.

If you've ever wondered why a dedicated and talented teacher can suddenly start to struggle, or how a teacher's sick absence can creep up without explanation, or why there are so few female teachers over 55, you might want to start thinking about menopause.

And of course it’s not just teachers. You’ll probably find there are significant numbers of middle-aged women among your teaching assistants, and your technical, administrative, catering and cleaning staff.

If you’ve been reading the papers lately you might have seen that the menopause made the front page of this week’s Observer. If you’ve been watching the TV you might have noticed that the menopause is now prime-time viewing.

This is not a conversation that’s going to stay hushed much longer. Women in menopause are going to start to expect a lot more of their colleagues and employers. So school leaders need to be part of that conversation.

What about the men?

Why should women get special treatment. Aren’t men entitled to consideration too?

Of course they are! If any employee is struggling their job because of their physical or mental health, then their employer ought to be working with them to support them.

But there are a few reasons menopause is a special case.

  1. There are so many of us!
  2. Unless a special attempt is made to open up that conversation it will stay hidden. Women who talk about it are sometimes ridiculed. It's often dealt with in the clunky way that mental health issues were dealt with a decade ago. That means you need to make a special effort to bring the conversation out into the open.
  3. It’s embarrassing. There’s still a social stigma to ageing as a woman, and let’s be honest — sometimes it’s messy!
  4. Sometimes women don’t realise that they are in perimenopause. So by helping educate your staff around menopause, you help them identify the problem and find help before it escalates.
  5. Also, it involves age and sex, and sometimes disability and no organisation wants a whiff of discrimination hanging around them.

Flexible Working Anyone?

This is where the conversation often falters. Every time I see coverage of the menopause and work, it’s about flexible working. Teachers’ lives aren’t like that. Schools don’t run like that. If there are learners in a classroom, someone needs to be teaching them. You can’t do it later on, or the night before. And, pandemic aside, you can’t really do it from home.

Temporary part-time hours are possible - and they should be possible while keeping additional responsibilities. But that takes quite a commitment on the part of the school. You need an approach to menopause that keeps teachers where they want to be — with the learners they are committed to.

Time off is sometimes necessary. We hope to keep it to a minimum, but if it’s going to happen it’s best for everyone if it happens in a planned and managed way.

So what, then?

Can we take a step back? There are lots of things you can do, but every woman is different, and if they’re not talking to you about what’s going on with them, you can’t help them.

And they won’t talk to you if they think you don’t care. They won’t talk to you if they aren’t confident of a sensitive and sensible response. They won’t talk to you, if they are hiding their menopausal experience for fear of being ridiculed or diminished. They won’t talk to you, if they have the feeling that somehow menopause is better not mentioned.

And they definitely won’t talk to you about menopause if they haven’t recognised that the challenges they are facing are due to perimenopause or menopause.

So how do you get ahead of this?

You have to change the culture of your school. It has to be a place where people can talk about menopause in a grown up way.

It needs to be understood that it’s not just hot flushes. It needs to be understood that memory issues and mood fluctuations are not a sign that a woman is less intelligent or less capable.

Women need to be able to deal with some of the physical challenges of menopause without feeling embarrassed.

That can be easier said than done. Because society values women for their youth and fertility, women can feel ashamed of their menopause.

Men can be curious, but excluded from the conversation, because women, quite often wrongly, don’t trust them to continue to look on them with respect. There can be myths to expel. What’s the fuss about something natural? My mother didn’t have all this! It’s all in the mind!

And the practical tips

This is not an exhaustive list. Everyone is different. You’ll be working it out case by case. You’ll be asking questions like “What do you need?” “What is making this harder for you?” “How can we remove or lower some of the hurdles?” “ How can we support you?”.

Make sure women can get to the toilet. That might mean looking at who has which classroom and giving some thought to how long and frequent breaks are. Is there someone who can hold the fort for five minutes in an emergency? Is there somewhere safe to put a change of clothes in case there’s a problem with menstrual flooding.

Consider allowing women off-site during non-contact time. Sometimes just a five minute walk and a change of view can reset the brain.

Look at how the temperature is managed in the whole school. It’s easy enough to put a jacket or jumper on, but a little harder to remove another layer when you’re down to your shirt already!

Make sure that the dress code isn’t making the problem worse. Make sure there’s water available. Provide fans if necessary.

See if there are ways in which timetabling could be adjusted that can take the pressure off. Perhaps you don’t want to give someone the most difficult class at the time of day when they’re the most foggy.

Support women who need time for medical appointments — generally speaking the quicker they happen the quicker things get resolved. A stitch in time and all that!

Consider how you can help women manage their stress levels — it’s been shown that stress makes menopausal symptoms worse. It may be appropriate to set up support groups, or help arrange counselling or coaching.

Why this benefits everybody

Because half of us will go through menopause at some point. Because the rest of us love, live with, or work with those that will.

Because keeping women in school means that we don’t lose their skills and expertise — and the investments we’ve made in them.

Because once women have gone through the menopausal transition they report feeling more confident, more assertive and more authentic — all desirable qualities in the classroom or the staffroom.

Because menopausal women pave the way for others who need support. If younger women suffer from endometriosis or menstrual issues — having had this conversation, will make that one easier. If male staff suffer from chronic penile pain (it does happen, I’m afraid, usually due to issues with the pudendal nerve) they’ll be glad that they are working in a place where conversations about vulvovaginal problems have been made possible.

Because helping menopausal women cope helps us to have a happier, healthier school.

Because we’re modelling to the young people in our care how adults handle difficulties — that we listen rather than make assumptions, that we support rather than criticise, that we treat people appropriately, and that we look for solutions to the challenges that come our way.