In a first for the fire and rescue service, the National Fire Chiefs Council convened those affected by menopause to share ideas and areas of positive practice, and to identify what more could be done to increase understanding of menopause and its impact.
The idea for a national conference came from the network of fire and rescue service menopause champions that wanted to raise awareness of the menopause and how it is supported more widely across the sector. The conference, which took place in Birmingham in September, brought together fire service leaders, academics, medical and HR professionals.
Hayley Douglas, Head of Media and Communications and a menopause champion at Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue Service, was the driving force behind the conference. She explained why she thought a national conversation was a significant step forward.
“Menopause is such an important topic, and it impacts people in many ways, physically, mentally and emotionally. This cannot be simply switched off while at work. Menopause shouldn’t be a taboo subject, and anyone going through the menopause should feel supported at work by their employer, their manager and their colleagues.
“When I was asked to take on the role as menopause ambassador for my service, I knew very little about it, or what support was available. I did a lot of reading and research, undertook an external course, and reached out to other fire services to see what they were doing.
“The response was amazing. The network now represents 35 fire and rescue services with menopause champions. There is some fantastic work being done, but we can always do more. The conference in Birmingham was enlightening, inspirational and empowering for all those who attended, and we’re excited to be able to build on that momentum.”
Many fire and rescue services have already developed their own menopause policy or have an approach to menopause embedded in their service’s health and well-being policy. Practical support varies, from menopause cafes, webinars and online guidance to employee forums and gender networks, pop-up toilets, and sanitary supplies on fire engines and in restrooms.
The provision of desk fans, access to counselling or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, and being able to claim back the cost of HRT prescriptions are also available in some services. One service also cited mandatory training for managers and a dedicated Occupational Health nurse specialising in the menopause.
An evolving response
When asked what more could be done, some distinct themes emerged. These ranged from national policies and guidance on menopause, to more focussed support, such as menopause champions and networks, or funded menopause advisors. Practical adjustments such as flexibility in working hours and shifts, providing cool / quiet spaces or working from home, and making menopause a category for sickness reporting were also suggested. A focus on fitness and nutrition was also a key emerging theme.
One of the main challenges regarding menopause in fire and rescue services appears to be awareness. Many delegates at the conference favoured and mandatory training ranging from guidance for all staff, to more focussed training for managers.
A sector wide approach
Kathryn Billing, Chief Fire Officer at Cornwall Fire and Rescue Service and the NFCC’s lead on Equality, Diversity and Inclusion spoke at the conference. She said, “All members of the fire and rescue service will be impacted by menopause at some point, whether they are supporting a family member or partner, managing individuals or going through the menopause themselves.
“The Menopause in Fire conference is the catalyst for a national conversation and approach to supporting everyone within the UK fire and rescue service, no matter what their experience is of perimenopause and menopause.
“We need to look at what the fire sector and the National Fire Chiefs Council can do now, and in the future, to make sure everyone feels supported and included. The interactive session gave us some useful ideas and insights, and we know that to implement change we now need to build on the momentum, get allies on board and work together. This can be through strengthening our menopause networks, providing national policies, toolkits and training, or simply facilitating the on-going conversation to raise awareness.”
Learning from experts
Raising awareness and understanding was a key objective of the conference, and the NFCC was delighted to welcome renowned menopause specialist, GP, author and podcaster, Dr Louise Newson as a keynote speaker.
Dr Newson has appeared on numerous television and radio programmes talking about the menopause and is a regular guest on ITV’s This Morning. She spoke passionately about her work to support individuals who are experiencing perimenopause and menopause, focusing on the ‘debilitating’ symptoms that are often misdiagnosed as physical and mental illness.
Dr Newson also talked about having worked closely with organisations to help them better support employees who are impacted, and the importance of talking openly about menopause and, crucially, keeping the conversation going.
She was joined by Dr Rebecca Lewis, co-founder of Newson Health and an expert clinician in the treatment of menopause symptoms. Describing menopause as a ‘Cinderella’ subject that has not been addressed in the right way medically for many years, Dr Lewis explained treatment options, their risks and benefits, and dispelled some of the myths around Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT).
Other speakers included Government Menopause Employment Champion Helen Tomlinson, Jules King from Women in the Fire Service, AJ Whittaker from The Fire Fighters Charity, Neil Taylor from Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service and Dr Emily Watkins, from Roehampton University, who spoke about the significant research that has been carried out into fitness and well-being during menopause.
Reflection and looking forward
Reflecting on the achievements at the conference, Hayley Douglas said: “The conference provided a fantastic opportunity for networking, and to hear from the amazing speakers, who shared their experiences, passion, professionalism, learning and knowledge.
“We are also indebted to Dr Newson and her colleagues – I know many people affected by perimenopause and menopause are already following her work closely and the conference provided a unique opportunity to hear more about her approach and expertise.
“We know that so much is already happening across fire and rescue services to support those affected by menopause, but by working together, harnessing and sharing areas of best practice, and having the courage to talk openly and honestly about menopause, we can achieve so much more.”