Talking to staff experiencing perimenopause and menopause: essential tips for all school leaders
In this blog, Helen Clare, menopause educator and mentor, and ex-biology teacher, gives advice on how to have conversations with staff about menopause and perimenopause, 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 perimenopause or menopause symptoms, and 44% of women found that their ability to do their jobs was affected.1
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. Perimenopause 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 perimenopause 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 differently2.
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/menopause3.
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 symptoms
If a staff member experiences a hot flush for the first time while at school, it’s best not to try and diagnose peri/menopause or give them unsolicited advice. Those conversation are delicate enough within personal relationships. They can be damaging in professional ones.
- Consider your language
Don’t use euphemisms - they can be confusing, especially if you’re from different cultures, or even different parts of the country. Try to familiarise yourself with the biological words as this will be clearer. 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.
- Let them choose how much to disclose
Allow your peri/menopausal member of staff to choose the level of disclosure that’s comfortable to them. You only need to know enough information to provide the right levels of support. But try not to fill in the gaps with assumptions – everyone is different.
- Ask open questions
Be curious and ask open questions so you can improve your understanding of their experience. This ultimately builds trust and safety. But allow staff time to think about their responses, especially if they are struggling with brain fog or memory problems.
- Work together at their pace
Balance giving space to people’s difficult feelings with working together to find solutions. Be patient and work at a pace that’s comfortable for them.
- Be clear about confidentiality
It’s important that staff can trust that you will treat their experiences sensitively and in confidence, wherever possible. There may be occasions where safeguarding over-rides confidentiality. Also, in order to provide support you may need to talk to other people. It’s important to be clear about this with your staff, and ensure they understand, and are comfortable with, you talking to third parties.
- Be clear about why you want to meet
If you want to initiate a conversation with a staff member who has been struggling with low mood or lack of confidence, tell them in advance what the meeting is about. This will give them a chance to think beforehand and not feel ambushed.
- Make time and space to talk properly
If you need to have a sensitive conversation, make sure you find a time when you can both be relaxed. Ensure there’s no urgency to bring the discussion to a close and agree to return to things if they become overwhelming or distressing.
- Find a private space
Likewise, make sure you can talk somewhere that’s private and where you will not be interrupted – not always easy in a school!
- Think ahead
What do you need from the conversation? What do they need? Are there any particular accommodations that need to be discussed? Allow yourselves time to consider these points ahead of any discussion.
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 educator and mentor, and 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/
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. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7880696/#:~:text=Women%20with%20the%20most%20severe,symptom%20domains%20(Table%202
We know that black women can have an earlier and more difficult peri/menopause. https://www.nasuwt.org.uk/advice/equalities/under-represented-groups/women/managing-the-menopause-in-the-workplace.html#AddressingWorkplace
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