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Raising awareness of menopause in the school workplace – why is it important? 

Schools are key employers, and teachers and support staff have the right to work in a healthy and safe environment. One in which an inclusive culture is both celebrated and cultivated.

However, in some cases, tight budgets, time restrictions and curriculum constraints can create barriers to schools introducing menopause support.

But this is an issue which schools really need to be addressing, urgently and importantly. The facts speak for themselves:

  • The average age for women to reach menopause in the UK is 51
  • Perimenopause and symptoms can begin years earlier
  • Symptoms can continue up to and beyond the age of 55 for some women
  • About 80% of menopausal women are in work
  • Of these, 3 in 4 experience menopausal symptoms, with 1 in 4 experiencing serious symptoms

Even so, this is only a small part of the story. We know that menopausal symptoms are not exclusive to women within this age bracket. They can affect many younger women who are undergoing treatment for medical conditions.

Premature menopause, as well as medical or surgically induced menopause, treatment for cancer, endometriosis, hysterectomy, and infertility, can also cause menopausal symptoms.  Employers need to be able to support their employees appropriately through any of these challenges.

To add context: the teaching profession is a female dominated one, particularly in classrooms and the primary sector.  The National Education Union (NEU) highlights that menopause is both an occupational health issue and an equality issue. They point out that women working in education often experience a more difficult menopause than women working in other occupations and professions because of the nature of their role.

“According to the UK’s Health and Safety Executive, teaching staff and education professionals report the highest rates of work-related stress, depression and anxiety in Britain.”

Teacher well-being at work in schools and further education providers, Ofsted, July 2019.

Recruitment and retention

It’s widely known there’s a ‘current crisis affecting the supply of teachers and leaders in English schools.’2 There are many reasons for this. Interestingly, one of the key issues is that while there is a huge focus on recruiting teachers, schools place little emphasis on retaining them.

If we have ambitions for our next generation, surely it must be a priority to swiftly implement and improve retention strategies?

We could significantly be changing our teaching professionals’ lives if we focused on supporting them in their workplace now. Bearing in mind that around “three-quarters of school teachers are women, with more female teachers than male teachers in every ethnic group, and out of the 22,400 headteachers in the UK (2018) around 15,000 are women.”3

And isn’t it just the right thing to do?  Without facts and figures to back this one up, let’s remember who we’re dealing with here. A profession in which “teachers shape the lives of their pupils and – in turn – the future of our country.”

The importance of strong leadership

A good leader will always weigh up the benefits alongside any risks.  Here, we look at some of the reasonable adjustments a headteacher or line manager might want to consider.  It’s important to remember, menopause is different for every woman.

A research report published in July 2017 by the Department for Education, stated: “A wide range of physical and psychological transition symptoms are associated with (menopause) transition, including hot flushes and night sweats, changes in menstrual flow and regularity and depression …”.5

A woman’s decision about how she manages her menopause is her own. But, through effective colleague training, they can find their own philosophy about how they wish to address disruptive symptoms. The facts about HRT, the impact of menopause on long-term health, guidelines on complementary and herbal remedies, information about lifestyle changes with direct links to counter the effects of hormonal changes, all contribute to a woman feeling more able to make informed decisions.

But a woman fully versed in how she manages her menopause is simply not enough. It would be akin to leaders knowing all there is to know about how to best manage an Ofsted inspection, for example, or a lecturer having knowledge of effective classroom behaviour strategies, but not sharing this information with their colleagues. The result would be that no one would benefit. Not even the leaders.

Understanding the impact of menopause symptoms is everyone’s responsibility, and line managers, senior leadership teams, and HR departments benefit from awareness and understanding in order for their whole workforce to thrive. Once line managers and senior teams have a clear understanding of how menopausal symptoms can impact a woman – and thereby their whole staff – the right support will naturally follow. From here, schools can make reasonable adjustments that don’t need to put an even bigger dent in the budget.

The case for investing menopause in the educational workplace training is supported with the knowledge that any financial outlay is outweighed  by the benefits it will bring.

What reasonable adjustments could be made to support menopausal women in schools?

 When you look at what the reasonable adjustments look like, it’s clear these don’t need to involve huge changes. Instead, it’s about creating an awareness and a focus on what is important and what is the right thing to do. This is demonstrated in the NEU’s ‘Working through the Menopause toolkit‘:

  • Working in a supportive environment
  • Access to a toilet and systems in place to cover a member staff if needed
  • Understanding from managers and colleagues regarding any condition that requires reasonable adjustments
  • Working in an environment where reasonable adjustments are made to achieve a comfortable working environment for all
  • Adequate ventilation and temperature control
  • Ready access to cold water

Sadly, many female staff in schools still say that menopause isn’t a conversation they can easily have with their line managers or colleagues. Some feel that their environment does not help with the challenging issues they may be facing.

 What does Ofsted look for when making a judgement about leadership and management? 

The new Education Inspection Framework (EIF) shines a spotlight on staff wellbeing.

Leaders and managers now need to better understand and take account of the main pressures on staff, in particular how they manage their workloads.  With fatigue, focus and concentration, and anxiety and worry being the top menopausal symptoms women say affect them the most in the workplace, we can see how managing workload could become even more challenging at this time.

Many school leaders are already supporting their staff and signposting them to appropriate support when necessary.  The difference is that leaders now must be more proactive in identifying those stressors and dealing with any issues appropriately and consistently.

During the current climate of Covid-19, teachers are adapting to new ways of working. These could potentially increase stress levels even further. And if there’s one thing we know about menopause, it’s that women are more likely to experience symptoms more severely during times of stress.

How do leaders know if  menopause is impacting their staff?

Menopause is an occupational health issue as well as an equality issue and this makes it highly important for leaders and managers to be aware of their responsibilities.

Knowing if menopause symptoms are impacting staff isn’t easy for leaders to identify, however, as menopause is still not something everyone feels comfortable talking about.  Creating a culture where women feel able to discuss their symptoms when they need to is the way forward. For this to happen, we first need to normalise the conversation around menopause.

 Jane Midwinter is an Associate Trainer at Henpicked: Menopause in the Workplace


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