It’s World Menopause Day on 18 October to raise awareness for women facing health issues related to the menopause.
This year’s theme is “Cognition and Mood”, highlighting that often the menopause is still associated with well-known physical symptoms like hot flushes, but many find the psychological effects of the menopause the most difficult. It is reported that around 50% of women experience low mood and depression, 70% experience brain fog, and about 40-50% experience memory and concentration issues during the menopause transition.
Menopause awareness has increased in the UK and you can read about it widely in the press. It is no longer considered the taboo topic it used to be. Nevertheless, employers can still feel wary about discussing it with staff. But, given the legal and HR risks, employers can no longer continue to view the menopause as a ‘woman’s issue’ that doesn’t impact the workplace. In fact, the growing awareness around the menopause offers a real opportunity for a dynamic employer to set themselves apart in their approach.
Why is the menopause a work issue?
Statistically, many people in an organisation’s workforce will go through the menopause during their employment. Sectors which traditionally have predominantly female workers, for example retail, teaching and social care, will be even more affected.
When you take into account that the years women are affected by the perimenopause and menopause can often stretch from around 45 up to 55 (although it can start earlier) and now 1 in 6 of the UK workforce are women aged 50 or over, employers need to get to grips with this issue.
Equality and diversity and the gender pay gap have been ‘buzz words’ for industry for some time. What better way to recruit and retain women in your organisation, and to demonstrate your commitment to these broader issues, than by supporting women through the menopause?
This isn’t just about doing the right thing by menopausal workers – there are business benefits as well.
What evidence is there of menopausal symptoms affecting workers?
The physical and psychological symptoms associated with the menopause vary from woman to woman but may include:
- Anxiety, mood swings and low mood
- Memory loss or confusion (brain fog)
- Loss of concentration
- Hot flushes
- Tiredness through sleep deprivation
Menopausal workers are more likely to have increased periods of sickness absence. A recent survey concluded that around 30% of menopausal workers were unable to go to work because of their symptoms, yet of that number, two thirds felt unable to say why. Even the fit notes produced by GPs for menopausal workers often fail to refer to the menopause in the reason for the absence, leaving employers in the dark about what might really be going on.
Anecdotal evidence tells us that many menopausal workers struggle to manage the changes their bodies are going through and ultimately are driven to leave their workplace. Research from the Menopause and the Workplace report by the Fawcett Society and Channel 4, which polled 4,000 women aged 45-55, found that 10 per cent had left their job because of symptoms of the menopause.
What approach is Government taking to the menopause at work issue?
This is a topic that has gained support from MPs pushing for employers to give it far greater attention than has previously been the case.
There has been a recent All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on the Menopause which has asked for more workplace policies to support women’s health. This APPG is currently lobbying for the NHS to fund menopause health checks and HRT prescriptions to be made free in England, which are currently free in the rest of the UK. The inquiry commented, “the majority of employers do not consider menopause a proper health condition and do not have policies in place to support staff going through it” and called for businesses to change this. The inquiry put forward that the menopause should be “core employee health issue” and that there is a good business case for investing in employee support. It has also recommended government guidance for employers on menopause at work policies.
How can employers support workers affected by the menopause?
A business that can put in place the right framework of training and policies, within a supportive and open culture, is likely to reap significant benefits in terms of lower sickness absence, decreased staff turnover and increased engagement and loyalty.
Evidence is clear that where employees receive understanding, help and support from management, it is greatly valued and enhances positive, productive working. Although currently it is bigger employers leading the way (steps taken by the likes of Channel 4, HSBC and Virgin have been widely reported).
There are practical steps employers can take, here are our steps for employers when managing the menopause at work.
#1 – Review and update your policies
Look at the policies you may already have that might touch on this area and ask yourself if they are as robust and comprehensive as they could be to handle situations that might arise. Look to raise awareness of what the menopause is, how it might affect staff and set out what support you can offer as a business.
But, make sure that issuing a new menopause policy is not simply a tick-box exercise. The aim should be to make a change in workplace culture, so that the menopause can be openly discussed and staff are supported through it.
#2 – Provide training
Ideally, provide training for all of your staff, but certainly for managers. They shouldn’t attempt to be medical experts but do need to know what to look out for and how to act.
#3 – Break the taboo
Consider how you can break the taboo around the menopause, so that affected employees feel that they are in an open and safe environment.
Communicating an understanding approach and attitude is critical and you should look to implement that on a ‘top down’ basis. Some employers have set up champion/buddy systems to encourage peer-to-peer discussions and genuine conversation.
Employers need to be mindful of the risk of harassment claims arising out of inappropriate comments made by colleagues. Raising awareness and education, making it an issue colleagues are comfortable talking about, should reduce that risk.
Employers can apply for ‘Menopause Friendly Accreditation’ signalling a working environment where the menopause can be talked about easily and the right support being put in place for colleagues. This requires an independent assessment and members include Boots, Sainsburys, NatWest Group
#4 – Review sickness absence for menopausal workers
Consider how you might approach health and sickness absence for menopausal employees. If their symptoms do amount to a disability, this should be considered in dealing with absence management. You should be prepared to be flexible in dealing with a potentially fluctuating health condition and bear in mind individuals can experience menopausal symptoms differently.
Legal reasons to treat menopause at work seriously
There are two strong legal reasons for treating the menopause as a serious workplace issue, quite apart from the social considerations already mentioned: health and safety, and the Equality Act.
Health and safety
Employers have a duty to ensure the health, safety and welfare of employees at work. They also have a duty to generally assess, then minimise, reduce or (where possible) remove workplace health and safety risks for employees.
A risk assessment for employees in the perimenopause or menopause is likely to include consideration of additional factors including:
- Adequate ventilation;
- Easily assessable rest areas; and
- Access to cold drinking water.
If relevant health and safety regulations are not complied with, there is a risk that the Health and Safety Executive could investigate. Perhaps more likely is that a menopausal worker who has raised concerns about health and safety matters, and then been treated unfavourably as a result, could bring a claim on that basis.
The Equality Act
The menopause is not a protected characteristic under The Equality Act 2010, however, the Equality Act seeks to protect employees against discrimination.
There are various strands that may be relevant when dealing with a worker going through the menopause:
The detrimental treatment of a woman related to the menopause could represent direct or indirect sex discrimination. This might arise if, for example, a woman is underperforming and their employer fails to take into account the impact of the menopause in circumstances where they would have made allowances for a man suffering ill health of another kind.
Employment tribunal decisions have been clear that menopausal symptoms can amount to a ‘disability’ as defined under the Act.
This means that an employer may be under a duty to make reasonable adjustments to help women manage their symptoms and continue to perform well in their role and needs to guard against the risk of a discrimination claim. Those reasonable adjustments might extend to changing the working environment, such as changing working patterns or adapting workplace policies or practices to take the impact of the menopause into account.
Gender issues are growing in prevalence and if a trans man going through the menopause were treated less favourably than a woman in the same position, that could give rise to discrimination issues on grounds of gender reassignment.
Given that the perimenopause and menopause will typically affect workers of a certain age, there is a risk of an age discrimination claim if employers are not mindful of their treatment of such staff, though to date, this has not been so common in the claims that have been brought.
Recent claims relating to the menopause at work
The Menopause Experts Group reported an increase of 44% of Tribunal cases citing the menopause in 2021 compared with 2020. This included 16 tribunals claiming disability discrimination, 14 claiming unfair dismissal and 10 claiming sex discrimination. Furthermore, mention of the word “menopause” increased 75% in tribunal documents.
A v Bonmarche Ltd (2019) resulted in successful claims of age discrimination and sex discrimination by an employee, based on criticism and harassment experienced at work from her manager while going through the menopause. The employer would often make jokes about the employee, stating that she was a ‘menopausal dinosaur’ and the employee was told that she was ‘pushing her luck’ when she asked for a break to take medication.
In Rooney v Leicester City Council (2021), the Employment Appeals Tribunal decided that an employment tribunal had been incorrect to strike out an employee’s claims including for disability and sex discrimination harassment and victimisation. Mrs Rooney had brought a claim with regards to her employer’s treatment of her in relation to her menopausal symptoms. She stated she had suffered from the effects of the menopause for two years and had struggled to cope. This included insomnia, light-headedness, confusion, stress, depression, anxiety, palpitations, memory loss, migraines and hot flushes. The EAT noted it was hard to understand how the tribunal could have decided that her symptoms were only minor or trivial. However, her employer and occupational health seemed to also be unaware. This case exemplifies the difficulties menopausal women can have a work and hurdles in establishing they have a disability.
The adverse remarks made by the managing director in Kownacka v Textbook Teachers (2021) led to a finding of harassment. He did not intend his comments to be offensive but they had necessary effect in law and showed a “lack of insight, sensitivity and empathy”.
It is worth noting these cases resulted in financial awards against employers and were widely reported, underlining the importance of employers taking an appropriately supportive and sensitive approach when managing women who are going through the menopause or perimenopause.
If you would like to discuss workplace policies around the menopause at work, how our Employment Law team could support training for your managers or any other employment matter, please get in touch.