'School Staffing: It's Time to Take the Menopause Seriously' - Judicium in SecEd

'School Staffing: It's Time to Take the Menopause Seriously' - Judicium in SecEd

Posted  7th March 2023

It is finally being talked about. The menopause has always been a part of women’s lives, yet it is only recently that a natural part of the ageing process for half the world’s population has begun to be properly discussed in the workplace.

I have spent a decade advising schools on legal and HR issues and when I look back at how many questions I have dealt with on menopause, all of them have been within the last three years.

The pandemic and the current cost-of-living crisis has raised awareness of the personal pressures many of our colleagues face and this has helped to propel the menopause from the shadows – and not before time.

This has spurred on schools to try to better understand those stresses and look for ways they can support their colleagues with better HR and employment policies.

A significant impact

Schools and other workplaces are finally waking up to the reality that the menopause can significantly affect the wellbeing of many older women.

The menopause is not just hot flushes – a common misconception. A report from the Fawcett Society last year (Bazeley et al, 2022) found that 84% of women described the lack of sleep and 73% the brain fog that both come with the menopause as being “difficult” or “very difficult” – this compared to 70% who said this about the hot flushes or night sweats.

Furthermore, 77% of women experience one or more symptoms they describe as “very difficult” and 69% say they experience difficulties with anxiety or depression due to menopause.

Nearly eight in 10 women experiencing menopausal symptoms are in work according to the Faculty of Occupational Medicine (2023). And in the Fawcett Society study, 44% of women said their ability to work had been affected by the menopause, while one in 10 who have been employed during the menopause have left work due to menopause symptoms.

So as you can see, this makes it an important issue for every workplace, particularly in schools, where the workforce is majority female. According to Department for Education workforce figures, 75% of the teaching workforce is female. In secondary schools, 65% are female, rising to 85% in primary schools.

Can you imagine how many incredibly experienced and talented women left their roles too early because of menopause-related health and wellbeing issues? In the current climate we can’t afford to lose people who still have long, productive careers ahead of them.

So this matters for the longer-term retention of our women teachers, too.

A shift in attitudes

There has already been a major shift in attitudes to mental health and wellbeing and a similar shift in attitudes to the menopause is needed if we are to ensure that younger generations of women teachers remain in the workforce in the years to come.

It is a challenge for schools but one they can – and must – meet. Studies have shown that most individuals are unwilling to discuss menopause-related health problems with their line manager and so do not ask for the support or adjustments that they may need. Indeed, as many as nine out of 10 women feel unable to talk to managers at work about menopause (Addison, 2021).

However, the menopausal transition need not be an awkward topic. It should be the aim of every school leader to create an inclusive working environment where employees feel confident to discuss the symptoms they are experiencing, how it may be affecting their personal and work life, and discuss any practical adjustments that they may benefit from. As the Fawcett Society report cited above states, simple things like relaxing dress codes or flexible working can make a difference.

Although not every older woman suffers with menopause symptoms, supporting those who do may help improve their experience at work. Creating an environment in which everyone understands what the menopause is and are encouraged to openly talk about it, without embarrassment, should be our aim.

While the menopause is not considered to be a health condition there are obviously a multitude of health and wellbeing consequences associated with it, some which could be long-term. Whatever the nature of the menopause-related issue, there will often be an employment-related implication that schools need to be aware of and deal with.

There are significant risks if the menopause issue is ignored. If it’s not taken seriously this can open your school up to potential disputes. This can chip away at goodwill, culminating in resignations or claims for constructive dismissal. At the most serious level, there could be claims of discrimination under equality legislation. Not addressing the menopause issue, or not managing it carefully, could open up schools to a lot of potential risk.

A menopause policy?

A menopause policy is not yet a statutory requirement, but it is strongly recommended, particularly if there are a large proportion of women in your workforce. Any policy cannot stand alone, though. It needs to marry up to your other policies and management processes.

Many of the problems I encounter when advising schools on menopause-related issues are down to a lack of education and awareness rather than any deliberate act. A middle or senior leader dealing with a breakdown in a professional relationship with a colleague might dismiss them as “stroppy” and unreasonable and fail to consider the underlying causes of that behaviour, which may or may not be menopause-related.

The solution alongside robust menopause policies and processes is for managers to develop an awareness and sensitivity when dealing with issues like these with female colleagues.

Encouraging your female colleagues to be open and to come to you as an employer and talk about any underlying issues, rather than simply getting themselves signed off for illness, is much more preferable. The aim must be to find a dialogue and find ways to help and support that individual. The contribution made by highly experienced, older women teachers and leaders to our schools is enormous. That’s why the issue of the menopause can no longer be ignored.

Advice for schools

So what can schools do to better support colleagues going through the menopause?

  • Promote a culture of open communication, participation, and encouragement, allowing employees to engage in discussions about the menopause.
  • Educate and inform members of the senior leadership team, line managers, governing body, and business managers regarding the potential symptoms of the menopause, and how they can support affected staff at work.
  • Ensure that staff suffering with menopausal symptoms feel confident to discuss these issues and ask for support and any reasonable adjustments that will help them to continue to be successful within their roles.
  • Facilitate requests for flexible working where reasonably practicable in accordance with the school’s flexible working policy.
  • Provide support and services, such as occupational health referrals, for staff affected by or absent by reason of the menopause where appropriate.
  • Make sure that risk assessments include or specifically address menopausal symptoms.
  • Maintain an appraisal process to ensure the suitability of workloads, supported by a capability procedure.

    Kelly Raynor is an employment law and HR expert at Judicium Education, who advises schools across England on HR, legal services, health and safety, clerking and data protection.  For information, visit https://www.judiciumeducation.co.uk/hr-advisory-service or follow @JudiciumEDU

    Sec Ed article - https://www.sec-ed.co.uk/best-practice/school-staffing-its-time-to-take-the-menopause-seriously-teachers-teaching-staff-wellbeing/

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