How schools are tackling the menopause

Teaching might be a female-dominated profession but it is only just starting to confront one of the biggest challenges for women in the workplace: the menopause. Schools are now, at long last, beginning to tackle this great taboo, write Emma Seith and Dave Speck – and talking openly about the subject is providing enormous relief to teachers who have been suffering in silence
19th July 2019, 12:03am
How Schools Are Tackling The Menopause


How schools are tackling the menopause

The cursor hovered over the “send” button at the top of the email, and it was a good 30 minutes before Judith Murphy finally summoned the courage to press it, she recalls. The modern languages teacher is 51 years old and, two years ago, the perimenopausal symptoms she was experiencing became impossible to ignore. She was floored by crippling fatigue, chronic breast pain and anxiety.

The email was a survey going out to all colleagues - some 300 teachers and support staff - to ask if other women at George Heriot’s School in Edinburgh were struggling and whether they, too, needed support.

After sending it, Murphy was all set to hide away in her classroom for the remainder of that day, so plagued was she with doubt about whether she had done the right thing. While she had the support of the school’s senior management team, the received wisdom in society seemed to be that you should keep schtum, soldier on and never admit that the menopause could be tough. What if her colleagues preferred it that way? What if no one responded? What if they then looked at her differently?

“I really felt as if I had unleashed some terrible secret,” she says.

It is no puzzle as to why Murphy felt such trepidation. Half of the population is destined to go through the menopause - provided that they live long enough. But it is a time in a woman’s life that has long been shrouded in secrecy, with jokes about hot flushes often the closest people come to an open discussion.

Recently, things have started to change amid a widening acknowledgement that the menopause can be a hugely challenging stage in a woman’s life. In May, BBC Breakfast held a menopause-themed week and explored the issues that women face. Presenter Louise Minchin spoke candidly about her struggles with heart palpitations, hot flushes, anxiety and a short fuse. She described the menopause as like “going over some sort of cliff edge”.

And, in fact, the response to Murphy’s email was far from the deafening silence that she had feared. Soon after she sent it, the responses started to land from colleagues, many of whom congratulated her for her bravery in broaching one of the last remaining taboos.

Murphy’s survey established that there was an appetite for support, with 40 staff responding that they would like to raise awareness of the menopause and 40 saying that they would welcome a visit from a specialist to provide information, advice and tips. So, one Wednesday after school, in the midst of the exam period, George Heriot’s held the first menopause event for staff in its almost 400-year history.

That evening, school principal Lesley Franklin went from never having talked about the menopause with colleagues - despite recently having gone through it herself - to being part of what turned out to be a wide-ranging, no-holdsbarred discussion.

Vaginal dryness. Drop in libido. Heavy periods. Perhaps not terms you would expect to hear bandied around the staffroom of one of the most prestigious private schools in Edinburgh. However, after the advice session - which was led by consultant gynaecologist Ailsa Gebbie, who has run a menopause clinic in the Scottish capital for 30 years - one teacher in her late forties described the session as being “as effective as hormone-replacement therapy”.

“We spend our lives at work,” she said. “We need to feel comfortable. Events like this are what helps.”

Murphy describes the experience of the menopause as being “overwhelming” and says it had a more significant effect on her than puberty or becoming a mother. It led to her having to make lifestyle adjustments in order to cope, including taking a six-month break from her nine-year relationship and asking for changes at work.

She used to coach the basketball team after school, but the fatigue, combined with the fear of a heavy bleed as she ran across the court, or the excruciating pain if she was accidentally bumped in the chest, forced her to give it up. Instead, she now runs a more sedate Americana music club at lunchtime.

Murphy says: “The demands of the job of teaching weren’t bothering me, but the evening fatigue was overwhelming. So I just decided to make a shift towards coming in early, working at lunchtime and going away sharp. Since I made that change to my day, it has just been so helpful.”

Some women sail through the menopause but for others it hits like a “ton of bricks”, says Gebbie.

The most common symptoms are fatigue, hot flushes and sweats, and these are likely to continue for “years, not months”, the gynaecologist says. Although she stresses that it’s a phase that will pass, the menopause can last for more than a decade - although not usually at the same level of intensity. The symptoms will still be there, but “more in the background”, she explains. And work does tend to become tougher, adds Gebbie, for those in demanding professions and public-facing roles where there’s no space to let off steam or have a break.

Teaching is, of course, a predominantly female profession, with women making up 85 per cent of primary teachers and 57 per cent of secondary teachers in England. Gebbie says the menopause usually hits between the ages of 45 and 55. The latest available data, published last year, shows that 18 per cent of primary teachers in England are women aged 45-54, as are 12.5 per cent of secondary teachers.

Teachers who got in touch with Tes said that the “highly visible nature of teaching” and the fact that teachers always had to have their “game face on” made it a particularly tough career to be in while experiencing menopausal symptoms.

Yet despite the high numbers of staff in the demographic most likely to experience symptoms, teachers say the menopause remains poorly understood in schools.

The NASUWT teaching union says employers have been slow to recognise that women of menopausal age may need special consideration, and for too long it has simply been seen as a private matter. It says the menopause is “very rarely discussed” and that many managers will have no awareness of the issues involved, while many women feel they have to hide their symptoms.

The NEU teaching union has offered guidance to employers to support the needs of teachers going through the menopause. Joint general secretary Mary Bousted said: “It is essential that women in the education sector who are experiencing menopause symptoms are supported in the workplace. The menopause is an equality issue and an occupational health issue for female educators. Why shouldn’t women be empowered to regulate their immediate environments: control the temperature, open a window, turn on a fan, access cold water?

“Schools should promote awareness of how the working environment can exacerbate menopause symptoms. The sector can’t afford to allow listless approaches to older women to drive out experienced and valued teachers and support staff.”

Emma Seith is a reporter at Tes Scotland. She tweets @Emma_Seith. Dave Speck is a reporter at Tes. He tweets at @Specktator100

This article originally appeared in the 19 July 2019 issue under the headline “Menopause for thought”

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