Whether arising from internal or external sources, our lives are marked by phases, cycles, and hormonal changes. However, many of these changes are stigmatised, considered private, and hidden in plain sight, thus limiting our ability to organise collectively as we move through them. For matters that primarily affect women’s health, these issues are even further pressed to the margins.

In her book “Threads”, where she explores different experiences and knowledge bases about the menstrual cycle, Lisa Fannen writes, “A lot of the discussion in biomedicine and of mainstream culture related to the menstrual cycle relates also to the menopause. As with the menstrual cycle, women’s experiences of the menopause is pathologized and then treated”.

Hormonal issues, including menopause, are workplace issues, and important equality and health and safety considerations.

Hormonal fluctuations are a part of us all but are too often either minimised – and excluded from any consideration at all, – or ‘maximised’ and used to tar a person’s whole set of behaviour. Neither approach considers the workers’ needs or their individual experiences.

Hormonal issues, including menopause, are workplace issues, and important equality and health and safety considerations. New guidance from the Equality and Human Rights Commission is now clear on the employers’ duty to prevent discrimination, and make sure those, who need adjustments, can access them. This should empower us to push for improvements.

But, as menopause and menstruation policies become more commonplace, care should be taken to root our understanding, and organising, in lived experience. As ASLEF Union commented when Avanti Rail released their menopause ‘gift bags’ for staff, containing jelly baby sweets (“in case you feel like biting someone’s head off”),

“The menopause is debilitating for some women, it’s not a joke. Rather than handing out insulting gimmicks to female employees, you’d be better placed developing workplace policies and procedures that value and support perimenopausal and menopausal women!”

It is important to note that not everyone will have the same experience of their hormonal cycle, that experiences may change over time, including the experiences of what we know as the menopause, and post-menopause. Some people never have any issues related to their hormonal changes, whatsoever. But for others, a supportive workplace can mean all the difference to staying in the profession they love.

The EIS will soon be updating our guidance on menopause and hormonal fluctuations. To move towards a better understanding, we asked five EIS women to share some of their stories.

Andrene Bamford, EIS Ex-President

My whole working life has been conducted alongside the monthly visitation of hormones which bring tiredness, pain, irritability, an insatiable craving for chocolate, and spots.

Standing up in front of a class with unrelenting pain and in an emotional state where you could scream or weep – it could go either way – is not easy, but has been an accepted and regular state of affairs. And actually, when the pain would come, it came with the relief that, ‘No, that previous week, I was not completely incompetent… I just had PMT’.

Nowadays, my hormonal fluctuations are not so regular. Perimenopause is a new and intriguing world of…is it hormonal? Or old age? Or something more sinister? When the old familiar hormonal onslaught appears, it seems to hit me with greater intensity. Although years have taught me to be more organised (I always carry appropriate sanitary equipment and medication, and my chocolate cravings are for something organic with at least 60% cocoa), I am still floored by the sudden tiredness and pain. Now I’m worried about letting my emotions get the better of me as I represent members, rather than standing in front of a class. More recently there’s been brain fog…and still spots.

Paula McEwan, EIS President

My symptoms are typical and they are mild, and I know how fortunate that makes me, however, I lose words – they flit in and then straight back out of my head, and I resort to pointing at or miming the ‘thing’ I’m trying to say.

I have overnight flushing – basically my body trying to boil itself from the inside out. This is not about just being too hot. I have insomnia or I have exhaustion, there’s very little of the in-between and there’s no way to predict which will hit and when.

And I have itching – why does nobody talk about the ‘eye-watering, teeth-clenching, wanting to peel off your skin and scratch beneath it’ itching? So, they’re typical and they’re mild (other than when the itching hits), but they are nonetheless frustrating, and exhausting, and unpredictable, and they can, if I let them, inhibit how I function.

Jacqui Church, Principal Teacher, Glasgow

Last week I taught my class hunched over the desk, as the spasms were unbearable at times. When the relief of lunch came, I spent twenty minutes in the toilet and the rest of it lying on the floor of an office. This is not just a bad day, but a cycle which, for many people, repeats itself every 28 days.

Alongside the pain, there are many menstrual conditions that have a devastating effect on your mental health. I have a condition called PMDD where my body reacts to the hormone fluctuations the week before my period. With an ever-increasing workload and the differentiation needed to support children with a variety of needs, the common symptoms of anxiety and feeling overwhelmed can cause great distress. Furthermore, difficulty concentrating and the brain fog that occurs over the week can lead to an unjustified sense of failure.

The reality is taking time off every month would lead to several distressing absence management meetings where I would have to disclose the intimate issues that I am facing.

The good news is a supportive SMT can ensure that reasonable adjustments are made, for example adjustable deadlines, increased breaks, and flexible working tasks during those moments where you need it the most. However, not everybody is lucky enough to have this support. Teaching is a difficult but very rewarding carer. Therefore, please check in on those colleagues who seem quieter once a month as they may just be spending their lunchtime lying on the floor.

Claire Robertson

The most surprising set of symptoms that I experienced were palpitations and joint soreness and a very quick path to feeling enraged. Feeling your heart skipping is distressing at best but waiting for it to stop, led me often to panic that I might be having a heart attack.

I started researching my other symptoms; low mood, a sense of dissatisfaction, no energy to participate in the exercise schedule that I had previously enjoyed. I was shocked at the variety of symptoms that can be associated with perimenopause and menopause.

Disappointingly, the first time I visited my GP she offered me anti-depressants. Perseverance and control of the rage was required to get the right support for me. I would reassure anyone that these symptoms can improve and you can get you back to feeling like yourself if you find the right support.

Carron McLellan

Being a fifty-something primary teacher is a challenge every day. Heavy sweats, leaking bladder and foggy memory are just the beginning. One minute you are focused and laughing and the next you feel flattened, and good luck concentrating!

This is the life of a woman struggling every day because your body is changing, and we have no control. You sometimes feel that the whole world is against you, yet you are still expected to, and push yourself to, perform to the highest standards.

I sometimes feel that my body and mind are working at odds with each other. I laugh. I need to run to the loo. I cry and the whole place feels alien. I support my colleagues and all day I try to determine what is going on in my mind, body and class.

People often think women can cope with anything. We keep house, shop, cook, mend, teach, and still push ourselves to smile every step of the way. The government has suggested a menopause room where anyone could go to cool down, compose themselves and have a cuppa, before returning to work. In a school, this is not going to happen! We don’t have a spare room, as the children are our priority. They have soft play areas, nurture rooms, play areas and us women teachers have a class with up to thirty-three children and a body that will not conform. Good luck to all of my colleagues dealing with menopause. We need it.