This week Jessica Clough focuses on the topic of menopause in the workplace. It is something that has historically been a bit of a taboo subject, but in light of recent reports of the growing number of employment tribunal cases citing “menopause” as a ground of complaint, that is starting to change. So how can employers raise awareness and what do they need to know?
The Women and Equality Committee launched an inquiry on Menopause and the Workplace in July 2021, looking at workplace practices and whether current discrimination legislation gave sufficient workplace protection. The consultation has now closed and we await the government’s response.
What is the menopause and how does it potentially impact on work?
People often have misconceptions that the menopause is just about hot flushes; however, menopause and peri-menopause can have a far wider range of symptoms including fatigue, insomnia, loss of concentration, mood swings, heart palpitations, panic attacks, anxiety and depression. For some women the effects are minimal or manageable but for others they can be very severe, impacting on the ability to work and in extreme cases they may even require periods of hospitalisation.
The menopause is not an “age thing” although typically it impacts women aged 45-55. Peri-menopause may last for a number of years and can start from a much earlier age.
Menopause also affects those whose sex assigned at birth was female, including those who identify as male or non-binary.
Why is menopause awareness important?
Women aged 50 and above are the fastest growing demographic in the workplace – according to the ONS January 2021 survey there are 4.6 million of them and rising. Women in that age group are usually highly experienced workers at the peak of their careers and are valuable to their employers.
However, a survey by BUPA and CIPD in 2019 found that 3 out of 5 women aged between 45 and 55 said they had experienced negative effects of the menopause which affected their work, and 30% of those surveyed had taken sick leave because of their symptoms but only 25% of those had told their employer the real reason for their absence. They found that over 900,000 women surveyed had left their jobs because of the menopause. Another survey by Health & Her indicated that up to 14 million work days per year were lost due to symptoms of the menopause.
The menopause is a very personal matter and something that employees may not feel comfortable discussing with an employer. Evidence suggests that many women who have experienced significant symptoms of the menopause do not to discuss what they are going through with their employers and often resign without revealing the true reason for deciding to leave their role. For example, they might instead say their reason for leaving was “stress”.
This results in a loss of productivity, experience and talent in the workplace, and a subsequent expense to the business of recruiting and training replacement workers. Another knock on effect may also be less women at the top of businesses, impacting on gender diversity in senior roles. There is also a risk of unfair dismissal, constructive dismissal, discrimination and harassment claims if the employees are not supported sufficiently, with menopause based tribunal cases tripling in the last 3 years
What does the law say?
The number of menopause claims in the Employment Tribunal has historically been small but cases have increased threefold in the last three years.
Menopause is not a stand-alone protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010; however, depending on the facts of the case, a menopausal worker may be protected on the grounds of sex, age, gender reassignment or disability. Other than discrimination, potential grounds for claim may be harassment or breach of Health and Safety requirements.
Employers should therefore aim to have a supportive work environment, to seek the support of Occupational Health and to offer reasonable adjustments where this is appropriate.
In the recent case of Rooney v Leicester City Council, Ms Rooney, a social worker who had been suffering from severe and long lasting menopausal symptoms which included hot flushes and sweating, palpitations and anxiety, night sweats and sleep disturbance, fatigue, poor concentration, urinary problems and headaches, resigned and claimed constructive unfair dismissal. She alleged her employer had failed to support her, including failing to arrange for her to be seen by a female occupational health specialist (which caused her embarrassment at describing her symptoms to a man), issuing a written warning for sickness absences which were due to her menopause symptoms, failing to make reasonable adjustments, forcing her to discuss her symptoms with an all-male panel of four colleagues at an internal appeal hearing. In addition, a male manager had belittled her symptoms.
Although the Employment Tribunal found that she was not disabled under the Equality Act 2010, the Employment Appeal Tribunal allowed Ms Rooney’s appeal and found the Employment Tribunal had been wrong to hold that her menopausal symptoms not could amount to a disability. They remitted the case back to another Employment Tribunal to consider whether she was disabled and her claims for disability and sex discrimination, harassment and victimisation on the grounds of disability and/or sex.
How can employers become more Menopause-aware?
What can employers do to support women going through the menopause and to encourage a more productive, inclusive and supportive working environment where all employees feel able to approach their manager to discuss symptoms with dignity and respect and where managers feel comfortable to provide guidance and support?
Education and awareness: educate managers, mental health first aiders, and the workforce more generally about the effect of menopause to raise awareness of the symptoms and how it can affect people, open up conversations about menopause in a supportive and inclusive way. For managers and mental health first aiders training should cover how to approach conversations about menopause sensitively and how to signpost employees to further advice and support if they need this.
Resources: Make support available to employees and educate them about where to find it so that they know what information and help is available and who to speak to. For example, have an employee assistance programme in place and publicise it on the employers intranet
Policies: Consider having a Menopause Policy to set the employer’s commitment to supporting employees experiencing the menopause, set out information on common symptoms, who to speak to in the event of issues, and what support is available and how menopause related absences will be dealt with. Consider whether other policies also need adjusting such as sick leave, performance management, bullying and harassment, and stress at work policies.
Consider carrying out a menopause Risk Assessment to check for specific safety risks and whether the office environment has potential to worsen symptoms – for example heavy confining uniforms, hot and unventilated conditions, lack of close access to bathrooms and drinking fountains could all pose potential problems for those suffering from the menopause
Consider making adjustments to the Office environment to make it more menopause friendly: is it possible to provide desk fans, easy access to cold water and toilets, access to a quiet room, can adjustments be made to uniforms if needed?
Consider being more flexible about work start and finish times for those who are suffering from menopause symptoms, and allow them to take breaks when needed or work from home if this is practical
For further information about the impact of menopause on women in the workplace, please see our recent webinar with Dee Murray, CEO of Menopause Experts.
If your business would like advice on how it can be a more menopause friendly employer, or would like assistance with drafting a menopause policy, please contact the employment team at [email protected].
Consistent with our policy when giving comment and advice on a non-specific basis, we cannot assume legal responsibility for the accuracy of any particular statement. In the case of specific problems we recommend that professional advice be sought.