Menopausal, not mad! Why we need to talk about menopause in the workplace.
We had the pleasure of working with Lisa MacPhail, Head Teacher at St Ninian’s Primary in Dundee City Council, as part of our partnership with Education Scotland. In this guest blog, she sheds light on an important yet rarely discussed topic – menopause. Menopause related symptoms affect the lives and careers of three out of four women – a huge portion of the workforce. Advocating for better support and higher awareness is key to the creation of more inclusive, happier workplaces.
After four fantastic years in Aberdeen learning my craft, my career started in Dundee, my home town, in 1995. After three years teaching, my then boyfriend, now husband and I, decided Australia was calling and off we went. It was there I experienced my first nappy change of a 2-year-old boy in a child care centre I had secured a job in (terrifying!) It was also there I became aware of my boss, a 40-something dynamic woman, seeming to be falling apart on a daily basis in front of me. I didn’t get it. She had her own business; it was doing very well. Our team was small but skilled. The sun was shining, life was good. One day, I asked my colleague June who was a 50-something, incredibly kind and funny woman, why *Karen (not her real name) was so irritable, exhausted, and emotional. June said one word in reply to me–menopause. At the time, I honestly had no idea what the word meant. I had had no experience of a woman going through this (my mum had her worst years when I was at Uni).
After my year working in Oz, I returned home to Dundee and secured a job in a different school. At the time, Dundee was championing the importance of play and had funded a nursery nurse for every P1 class in schools with high levels of deprivation. Early years was my passion and Liz was my nursery nurse angel. The woman was an outstanding practitioner. She lacked confidence in herself but was knowledgeable, experienced, and kind. She taught me every day about planning for and providing high-quality play and never seemed to mind the fact I was, even as a teacher of only a few years, earning significantly more than her.
As well as all things education, Liz taught me something else. On a daily basis, sometimes several times a day, she would race across the classroom, throw open the windows and door and start removing layers of clothing as the colouring of her skin started to go from Scottish white to burning red. The first time I laughed (yes, ashamed now). But very quickly I could see how these, what I now know to be called hot flushes, were dictating her every move, her daily plans, her social life, her confidence. It was menopause and she was firmly in it. And although I grew to sympathise with her, I never, ever heard the word menopause being discussed in the staffroom or with my friends and really had no idea what she was going through.
Now, I am 48 years old. I am a head teacher in a fantastic school. I love everyone in the building, kids and adults and I’m proud of my team and what we have achieved together in the eleven years I’ve been there. But during lockdown, I started experiencing periods of insomnia and anxiety. I put it down to the pandemic and the front-line roles we were all committed to.
As school returned to a level of normality, I expected insomnia and anxiety to fade. It didn’t. I found myself starting the day feeling exhausted and irritable. I was regularly losing my train of thought–stopping mid-sentence and then asking my depute what I had been talking about. I had meetings with my Education Officer and felt tongue-tied and embarrassed at the brain fog I was displaying–it wasn’t like me! I knew my stuff! Why could I not get my words out?! I was being blunt to the extreme with people I loved and felt like I was losing my mind. I shared this with my older sister who very matter-of-fact replied ‘you need to get some HRT (Hormone Replacement Therapy) in you!’
Luckily for me, another member of my team had had a very challenging few years with menopause and I found myself seeking her out to ask her questions, learn from her and most importantly try to understand. She really opened up about her challenges and shared things I hadn’t noticed e.g. she was struggling to get in on time in the morning (her joints were agony first thing in the morning and she needed to stretch before she could move).
This once dynamic and funny woman was really fighting to get through every day. She went from being confident in her ability (rightly so–she’s fabulous) to being someone who doubted herself, who questioned people’s motives, who looked like she was using every ounce of energy she had just to get through the working day. Over time, and with the help of HRT and other things, she is on the up but still has tough moments. The difference now is she tells me and others so we can lift her up and help her through.
It’s been a real learning curve for me taking menopause into consideration as part of my duty of care to her and the effects on others. And that’s the thing I hadn’t realised menopause is not just an age or gender issue. It impacts colleagues and children too, partners, and family–directly or indirectly. And so, while trying to be there in the right way for my colleagues who need me at this time, I also find myself navigating the journey that is menopause.
The NHS website shares that there are 3.5 million women over 50 in the workplace. Symptoms of menopause can last for ten years and the average age for someone to go through menopause is 50. However, symptoms of perimenopause can start years before this. Symptoms can be cognitive, physical, or psychological (or all of them!). Hot flushes, depression, anxiety, insomnia, irritability, exhaustion, lack of motivation, weight gain and many, many more. 3 out of 4 people experience symptoms: 1 in 4 can experience severe symptoms which impact their daily life.
I have 35 staff on our team, one of those is a man, 34 are women and yet I don’t have any policy or procedures to support staff going through menopause. And those 34 women will go through it. And the one man–well, his wife/mum/friends/colleagues will too. No one’s journey will be the same as anyone else’s, but it is rather alarming to think that something which can effectively be crippling to a person, can also be crippling to an organisation and that I am so badly prepared to support and manage it effectively in the workplace.
Recently, I started talking more openly to my team about things I was feeling and experiencing around menopause. Very quickly, it became clear that a fairly large number were experiencing symptoms of perimenopause or menopause. We shared stories and lots of laughs but also compassion and empathy. I started reading and researching menopause and learning more to help me personally and my team. I plucked up the courage to call my doctor ready for a fight as I had heard of other friends who had to do so to get on HRT. Thankfully, no fight was required and my lovely, 50-something female doctor understood my cry for help.
I have now begun my journey with HRT. I started with patches which I could not get to stick on and I felt disheartened and deflated that the magic cure I had been expecting was not working for me. But again, the doctor was supportive, and I am now using oestrogen gel which is improving my symptoms alongside a mild anti-depressant to help with anxiety.
It is only now as some of the brain fog clears, that I realise the importance of awareness and understanding around this issue in our schools and early years centres. Nearly 60% of women between the ages of 45-55 experiencing menopause say it is negatively impacting them at work.
A piece in the Guardian in January of this year stated that a survey of 2000 women aged 45-67 experiencing menopausal symptoms found lack of support is having a direct impact on their decisions to leave the workplace. The women said it was the second most devastating impact on their career, only just behind having children. 63% said their place of work had no policy in place to support them and left them feeling they were being pushed out of the workplace because of their biology.
Too many women are suffering in silence. Women are curbing career ambitions or giving up jobs, meaning our industry loses talent and experience due to something completely out of our control.
So, what can we do? Be kind–to yourself and others. This journey is not without bumps. I’ve learned the importance of being open and honest, with everyone I meet about how menopause is impacting my life and the lives of those closest to me. I’ve learned to listen to the story of each individual, what the journey looks like for them and to try to put in place support that ensures they feel listened to and that I am trying to help. The member of staff I spoke about earlier now has her reduced contact time first thing in the morning to allow her stretching time. It’s a small thing but one she assures me she is grateful for.
Relationships and the importance of equality have always been important to me personally and my team, but we have now further expanded our culture together so open conversation around all things menopause is encouraged and accepted. I promise we haven’t all become menopause bores, but we have become a tighter team for the love and support we are sharing. And our one male on the team? Well, he’s the one coming in first in the morning and opening all the windows.