Nicky Bright portrait

Written by Nicky Bright

Leadership development consultant with over 30 years of experience

A post written in response to the TES article ‘what to expect as a Senior Leader with pregnancy’.

I originally wrote this article last Easter and tore it up as being ‘too close to home’.  A taboo subject, and one that has only really been raised more widely over the last 18 months or so, I worried how it would be received, and I would be perceived.  But Emma Seith’s TES article on 19th July 2019 emboldened me to have another go.  I had only recently sought help for the symptoms I had been experiencing with increasing intensity for about 18 months, without really realising that a) they were symptoms and b) help was available.  Instead, I thought I was simply not coping well with increased pressures of work, but not wanting any signs of weakness or vulnerability to show.  How wrong I was.

Menopausal women are the fastest growing demographic in the workplace (ONS 2018) and with a retention and recruitment crisis, and our profession being dominated by women, albeit with proportionately more men in senior roles, we should take note, whether we are personally affected by the menopause or increasingly surrounded by those who are.  For every ten women experiencing menopausal symptoms, six say it has a negative impact on their work (CIPD 2019).  We cannot afford to lose highly skilled and experienced staff who simply need some support, and perhaps don’t realise it themselves.

I now realise that I was not alone in feeling like this, as the menopause was relegated to a cursory mention when I was at school.  Our biological education really only emphasised understanding your cycles sufficiently to avoid pregnancy.  The portrayal of menopausal women until recently has been derogatory and laughable, providing Les Dawson and others with endless comic material.  Women of a certain age are ‘washed-up’, ‘over the hill’, ‘a little neurotic’ and so on.  Kirsty Wark’s 2017 BBC programme on Menopause raised the tone of the debate and is one of the pieces of journalism of which she is most proud, understandably in my opinion.  Now everyone is starting to talk about it, and even more so with the announcement of a procedure to delay it for 20 years or longer (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/topics/cxwkx729dx2t/menopause).  As Liz Earle said in Stella Magazine (21 April 2019), ‘If you ask any Head of HR ‘What’s your maternity or paternity policy?’, they’ll produce a document.  If you say ‘What’s your menopause policy?’ there’s silence.’ 

As a senior leader, I’m not advocating yet another policy for us to have to update annually, but there does need to be some discussion to ensure that this vital and growing part of our workforce are not unfairly disadvantaged because of ignorance, and simply leave.  We all know women who have taken earlier retirement than they may have originally envisaged who have simply ‘had enough’ and are exhausted and don’t even think to ask for help, because they probably don’t realise that, in many cases, they can be helped.  Some women sail through without any difficulties, but if increasing numbers of women are working longer, and also reaching leadership positions, we need to help those who aren’t sailing through, so we can all benefit from their years of experience and talent.

Sleep deprivation is known as a tool of torture, and many young parents suffer from it.  However, it is less commonly known that fatigue, through disrupted sleep patterns, heightened anxiety and hot flushes, is very common to menopausal women too.  With the right support in place we can make the most of their experience and talents in the same way we do for young parents.  What about rearranging a member of staff’s timetable for a year or two, so they can come in later if they have been awake half the night, or letting them go slightly earlier if their exhaustion kicks in at the end of the day.  Not always possible or indeed necessary, but everyone is different and without a conversation who would know what might help?  Giving staff more individual control over ventilation in classrooms can be difficult in very old buildings or new ‘climate controlled’ green buildings, so providing a fan is a simple way to help.  Ensuring staff teach in classrooms close to toilet facilities is another relief for those who suffer from ‘flooding’ or need to go more regularly.  Much is made of mental health support for staff these days, quite rightly, and the increased levels of anxiety and depression some women suffer can be supported too.  CIPD and the NEU produce great guides for HR teams, people managers and materials to get people talking about their experiences so they can be helped, and direct others towards the right help for them.

With the benefit of HRT, more exercise because I have more energy again, talking therapies support and lots of reading and discussion with empathetic others about this, I am now feeling much more myself again – my new older self.  On my journey, I have come across lots of work being done in other industries and professions to support this fastest growing working demographic, and so on Monday 18th November at the GSA Head’s Conference in Bristol I will be running a seminar with Inspector Julie Knight of Avon and Somerset Police to discuss how we can better support our staff (and ourselves?) in education.  The Constabulary have had overwhelmingly positive feedback about the menopause awareness days they run, and the support networks they facilitate – we can learn from this.  Women make up nearly half of their workforce with 34% over the age of 46. They have an open and proactive approach to supporting individuals and managers in order to support and retain talented staff.

I’m pleased to hope that younger women won’t ‘not realise’ what is happening to them for as long as I did, because this taboo is now being properly discussed, and so they will be prepared mentally and physically to ask for and accept help if necessary.  I’m also hopeful that we can help to stem the loss of valuable talent to our profession, because our staff will feel respected and supported.  And who knows, perhaps younger women won’t even need to go through it at all…

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