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The menopause: breaking the taboo
An issue for all workers and their trade unions
Jane Nellist, NUT national executive member (personal capacity)
The National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) has issued guidance to GPs and health professionals about how to treat and support women experiencing the menopause - and it's about time too!
In our modern society, few subjects are off-limits and issues such as mental health are freely discussed by workers. For too long, the menopause has been ignored and is regarded as the last taboo subject for women.
Because of this, most women suffer in silence, feeling that they should just 'get on with it'. But actually, they are going through major changes which, for some women, will even result in surgery in the form of a hysterectomy.
What's more, very little money is spent on research into the health problems that beset many women, to varying degrees, at some time in their life.
Not every woman's experience of the menopause is the same. There are many symptoms associated with it and these can last for varying lengths of time.
Hot flushes, night sweats, headaches, bladder problems, susceptibility to anxiety, fatigue and stress are common. Many of the discomforts can be resolved at the workplace with simple measures such as ventilation, access to toilets and water. Some need more, such as time off and perhaps reduced workload.
But at the very least we need a sympathetic management and the confidence to know that we are not going to be persecuted for admitting we are going through 'the change'! What's more, at this time of life, women have more demands placed on them to care for elderly relatives or support for grandchildren.
At the 2014 conference of the National Union of Teachers (NUT), a debate on the menopause took place, promoted by Socialist Party members in Coventry.
From that, the NUT agreed to carry out national research on the issue. That research led to advice and guidance that can be used by all workers - because this isn't an issue just for teachers. Anecdotal evidence from union casework was backed up by the research.
The major factor that needs to be recognised is that there are now far more women over 50 in the workplace - 3.5 million according to the TUC. This will rise further as the pension age increases and benefits are cut, forcing older women to work.
In my own union, the NUT, 76% of members are women. Over the last few years, the number of older women teachers who've had issues raised by management about their capability has increased. In some schools there appeared to be a 'cull' of older teachers.
Older teachers are likely to be the highest paid members of staff. They may also be the most resistant to those changes that are not conducive to their pupils' well-being. With the pressure of testing and a restricted curriculum, management targets this group of teachers to cut costs and remove obstacles.
But the fact remains that underlying many of the cases there were health issues, often clearly associated with the menopause.
As often is the case, management don't always willingly offer solutions to problems in the workplace. Improvements have to be won by trade unions standing up for our rights and collectivising the issue.
The NICE advice, coupled with good workplace policies, is just the start. We need far more research into the menopause and how to treat women, many who go through agonising physical and mental changes.
We need to fight for a lower pension age for all workers with decent pensions and better care for our elderly relatives. For that, we need to join together to fight to change our society to one where all are valued and supported.
See the NUT guidance at www. teachers.org.uk/briefings/menopause
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In The Socialist 29 July 2015:
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