menopause at work

Traditionally, the menopause hasn’t been something we talk about at work. It’s one of those taboo subjects, like periods, that women talk about with their friends but certainly not in public or with their employer. But that’s changing.

Employers can no longer risk viewing the menopause as a ‘woman’s issue’ that doesn’t impact the workplace. In fact, I would suggest that 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, the majority of most businesses’ workforce will go through the menopause at some point. Sectors which traditionally have predominantly female workers, for example teaching and social care, will be even more affected.

When you take into account that the years women are affected by the menopause can stretch from around 45 up to 55 and that by 2022, 1 in 6 of the UK workforce will be a woman aged 50 or over, this is something you will need to get to grips with.

Equality and diversity and the gender pay gap have been ‘buzz words’ for industry for some time. What better way to recruit and retain senior 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 actual 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 and depression;
  • Memory loss or confusion;
  • Hot flushes;
  • Tiredness through sleep deprivation; and
  • Headaches.

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. In fact, further research by People Management shows that almost one million have left their job because of menopausal symptoms.

What approach is Government taking to the menopause at work issue?

This is a topic that has gained heavy support from MPs pushing for employers to give it far greater attention than has previously been the case and for current legislation to potentially be updated.

On Friday 23 July, the Women and Equalities Committee launched a new inquiry seeking to understand whether current legislation goes far enough to support women experiencing the menopause at work, whether there are workplace practices that may help manage the menopause and if legislative amendments are necessary.

The deadline to make submissions to the inquiry ended on 17 September 2021. Whilst we are still awaiting the outcome of that inquiry, a Private Members’ Bill, the Menopause (Support and Services) Bill is also working its way through Parliament and the menopause is now recognised as a women’s health strategy priority.

It may well be that these steps won’t result in new laws being implemented but we believe it is almost certain that new guidance and recommendations will be issued for employers.

How can employers get ahead in the meantime?

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.

Four steps for employers when managing the menopause at work

#1 – Review 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.

Policies should be issued on a whole workforce basis. 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.

#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.

Communicating a positive 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. The organisation Henpicked gives employers a chance to be recognised as a ‘menopause friendly employer’.

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.

#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:

  • Temperature;
  • Ventilation;
  • 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 Equality Act 2010 protects employees against discrimination and there are various strands may be relevant when dealing with a worker going through the menopause:

Sex discrimination

As the vast majority of people who go through the menopause are women, 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.

Disability discrimination

Although the recent pattern of case law has gone in employers’ favour, tribunals 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, changing working patterns or adapting workplace policies or practices to take the impact of the menopause into account.

Gender reassignment

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.

Age discrimination

Given that the perimenopause and menopause will 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.

Claims relating to the menopause at work

Data shows there is a sharp increase in the number of women taking their employers to court, citing under dismissal or discrimination due to the menopause. In fact, the number of women bringing cases to the employment tribunal has almost tripled since 2018.

There have been some important cases already:

In Merchant v BT (2012) the claimant was dismissed following a final warning for poor performance while she was experiencing difficult menopausal symptoms.

Prior to her dismissal, the claimant had given her employer a letter from her doctor providing evidence of her symptoms, which included stress and poor concentration. Her line manager chose to disregard this despite the employer’s performance management procedure requiring managers to consider if underperformance was due to health reasons. Instead, he relied on his own experience (based on his wife) and beliefs in respect of the menopause, choosing not to carry out further investigation.

The claimant’s direct sex discrimination and unfair dismissal claims were upheld where the Employment Tribunal judge commented that the employer would never have adopted “this bizarre and irrational approach with other non-female-related conditions”.

The claimant in the case of Davies v Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service (2018) was also successful in her claims of unfair dismissal and disability discrimination.

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 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”.

In Rooney v Leicester City Council (2021), the Employment Appeals Tribunal made clear that when assessing disability, judges must look at what the individual cannot do, rather than what they can do. That the claimant could still carry out some day-to-day activities did not mean that her menopausal symptoms did not meet the definition of disability.

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 team could support training for your managers or any other employment matter, please get in touch.