Talking to staff experiencing peri-menopause and menopause: essential tips for all school leaders
In this blog, Helen Clare, Menopause Coach and Ex-Biology teacher, gives advice on how to have conversations with staff about menopause and peri-menopause, and how to start building stigma-free cultures in schools.
Articles / 6 mins read
A delve into the Department for Education statistics suggests that approximately 1 in 6 of the teaching workforce is likely to be experiencing peri-menopause or menopause right now.
And the Fawcett Society report that ‘one in ten women have left work because of peri-menopause or menopause symptoms, and 44% of women found that their ability to do their jobs was affectedi.
So to retain education staff and ensure they are well enough to do their jobs effectively, your school should look to prioritise supporting staff experiencing peri/menopause.
Menopause and peri-menopause: what’s the difference?
Menopause is the point at which our periods stop and we become post-menopausal. Peri-menopause is the phase leading up to that – sometimes for a decade or more – where our hormones are fluctuating dramatically, that’s often the most challenging time. However symptoms can take a while to settle after menopause and some of us can continue to experience them for years – and post-menopausal bodies and brains can require their own careful management.
Although there is a medical distinction between peri-menopause and menopause not always reflected in our experience so I’m going to use the term peri/menopause to cover any state where someone is experiencing the symptoms of perimenopause or menopause.
Remember, it will not affect everyone in the same way!
Sadly, peri/menopause is not fair or equal. We know for example that those with two or more adverse childhood experiences tend to experience a more difficult menopausal transition. We know that black women can have an earlier and more difficult peri/menopause.
We know that our peri/menopausal experience can be affected by our culture, our class, our sexuality and our relationships – including that with our doctor! There is also some research that may show those who do not have children – through infertility or by choice - could potentially experience menopausal symptoms differentlyii.
There are additional challenges for those who have pre-existing health problems or are neuro-diverse. Put simply, those who are already having the toughest time, will probably have the toughest time through peri/menopause. It really isn’t fair!
In addition some people will have an early or sometimes extremely premature menopause and the sudden onset of menopause triggered by surgery or medical treatments can be particularly challenging to manage.
And, peri/menopause isn’t just about female colleagues; staff of diverse gender expressions and identities experience menopause. It is also important to know that religion, economics and many other factors can also impact a colleague’s personal experience of peri/menopauseiii.
Building stigma-free school cultures
Creating an open and comfortable workplace culture for discussing peri/menopause is essential. This means ensuring all staff know how to handle such conversations, and school leaders are approachable for sensitive discussions.
Additionally, evaluating school facilities and schedules to identify potential challenges is crucial. Conducting a menopause audit can help anticipate and address any issues. Establishing a clear menopause policy within your wellbeing framework provides guidance on who to contact and what accommodations are possible i.e. providing fans or flexible time off for medical appointments. Engaging in these conversations, despite potential discomfort, is essential to support staff during their menopause journey.
So, how can we make those conversations easier?
- Don’t diagnose other people’s peri/menopause.
Those conversation are delicate enough within personal relationships. They can be damaging in professional ones. That’s the value in the school being proactive in making sure its staff have trustworthy information about perimenopause and menopause
- Be transparent about what the conversation is about so that the member of staff can think about any issues they want to raise beforehand and do not feel ambushed.
- Make sure you find a time when you can both be relaxed and there’s no urgency to bring the discussion to a close and give yourselves both a bit of buffer time if it turns out to be distressing.
- Make sure you can talk somewhere that’s private and where you will not be interrupted – not always easy in a school!
- Think in advance what you need from the conversation. And at some point it might be useful to ask them what they’d like from the conversation.
- Think about the language you are comfortable using. Euphemisms aren’t great. They can be confusing, especially if you’re from different cultures, or even different parts of the country. The biological words have the advantage that they’re clear and can be less embarrassing so it’s worth checking what they are and giving yourself permission to use them. It’s also a good idea to be guided by the other person’s language, unless they seem to find it difficult to find comfortable words.
- Allow your peri/menopausal member of staff to choose the level of disclosure that’s comfortable to them. You only need to know what you need to know to find solutions. But be aware that it is easy to fill those gaps with assumptions, and we are all so very different when it comes to menopause.
- Ask open questions, and allow people time to think and feel and, especially if they are struggling with brain fog or verbal memory problems, to formulate their responses.
- Balance giving space to the distress and impotence that people often feel, with moving forward to working together to find solutions that will help ease the problems.
- Be clear about confidentiality. As with conversations with children, there may be occasions where safeguarding over-rides confidentiality. Also, in order to provide support you may also need to talk to other people. It’s worth acknowledging this and checking that it’s ok.
It is useful to facilitate connections between menopausal staff so that they are in a position to support each other, although you’ll need to make sure they’re comfortable with that. Many schools set up their own support groups.
Helpful sign-posting for education staff
It’s also useful to be able to sign-post staff to useful resources – either in these conversations or in general information that’s shared with the staff:
- You may find my blog useful
- The patient arm of the British Menopause Society womens-health-concern.org/ provides a wealth of evidence based information and has the advantage of being a source that a doctor is likely to respect.
- Staff might also like to take a look at the New Menopause Practice Standards from the British Menopause Society
- Keep an eye out for the new essential guide and peri/menopause webinar for school leaders by Education Support coming in Spring 2024! In the meantime, you can read their guide ‘Menopause in the Workplace’ or ‘Managing the menopause at school: your stories’.
If you or a colleague are struggling:
You and your colleagues can contact the Education Support helpline for immediate, confidential emotional support on: 08000 562 561.
It’s also worth remembering that navigating these difficult conversations can have a knock-on effect on us. It’s important to consider who can be there for you too, without breaking confidentiality.
Helen Clare is a Menopause Coach, Ex-Biology teacher and lifelong Biology geek! She has a BSc Hons (Biology) PGCE and an MA Creative Writing. Helen is International Coaching Federation trained and an associate of the British Menopause Society. She has 12 years’ experience in Educational Strategy with Arts Council England and Creative Partnerships. Helen has enjoyed running ‘Menopause in Schools’ for 3 years
- https://www.swanstudy.org/swan-investigator-dr-victoria-fitz-is-featured-in -healio-article-infertility-involuntary-childlessness-link-to-midlife-depressive-anxiety-symptoms/
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