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Menopause – why should this matter to you?

6 min read

By Joanne Boyle, Lowenna Carlson

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An inquiry by the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee was recently  launched, investigating issues around the menopause in the workplace. The inquiry aims to investigate issues with existing legislation and workplace practices regarding women going through menopause in the workplace.

The committee comprises of members from different political parties and looks at the development of the Women’s Health Strategy. It is anticipated that they will present findings and make recommendations which will shape policy to address gender equality. For example, there is a possibility that it may be recommended that menopause be added as a protected characteristic within the Equality Act 2010 to help prevent discrimination in the workplace relating to menopause.  Recommendations are awaited but we do expect them to address whether further legislation is required to adequately protect menopausal staff from discrimination at work. 

This article will look into various impacts the menopause can have on your business and what you as an employer can/should do to mitigate this, for the benefit of both your employees and your business. It is an area that is slowly moving out of its unjustified "taboo" status and into mainstream  consciousness which means this could soon, if addressed appropriately, no longer be an "issue" in the workplace.

But what does the menopause mean to you as an employer?

You hopefully noted that Monday 18th October was World Menopause Day. So what? Well, at present, if a worker is treated unfairly because of menopause, this may amount to discrimination on the grounds of one or more of the protected characteristics of age, disability, gender reassignment and/or sex as well as unfair dismissal.  It is fact that the number of Employment Tribunal decisions relating to menopause discrimination is increasing.  Most importantly, you may disengage your talent that you have so heavily invested in.

The menopause is usually (although not exclusively) experienced by women between the ages of 45 and 55. Sometimes there is little negative effect on the individual and other times there are those who experience a range of debilitating symptoms that can have an adverse effect on their day to day life, not to mention their work.

Some common symptoms include:

  • Hot flushes.
  • Memory issues.
  • Concentration problems.
  • Fatigue.
  • Mood swings.
  • Muscle aches.
  • Difficulty sleeping (1).

These symptoms can in turn lead to higher levels of stress, anxiety and lack of confidence. Symptoms can also lead to performance difficulties in the workplace and, in turn, have a detrimental effect on your business.  However, with the right support, impact can be mitigated – benefiting both employer and employee.

Why bother?

Besides from your legal obligation to protect employees from discrimination, there are significant benefits in having a workplace that is aware of and undertaking positive action in respect of menopause.

Supporting menopausal people (as this can include trans men) in the workplace can:

  • Foster an inclusive culture.
  • Increase loyalty and engagement.
  • Reduce sickness absence.
  • Retain talent across age ranges.
  • Ensure retention of diversity at executive levels.

Remember, those who experience the menopause (whether now or in the future) will constitute a significant proportion of your workforce. Loosing highly skilled individuals due to poor management or lack of reasonable adjustments can negatively impact your business. This is an economic issue as much as a people-issue, given the growing demographic of women between 45 and 60 in the workplace and increasing recruitment costs.

We summarise a few examples of case law to demonstrate the various ways that employer failures have been brought to light in the Employment Tribunal:

Donnachie v Telent Technology Services Ltd

Employment Tribunal found that the employee's menopause symptoms were substantial enough to amount to a disability. The employer argued that the symptoms were typical, and the impact was not substantial but this was disregarded because the impact of the employee's symptoms on her day-to-day activities were considered more than minor or trivial.

Davies v Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service

The employee was disciplined and dismissed due to forgetful and confused behaviour as the employer believed she has lied and brought the court into disrepute. However, her claim for unfair dismissal and discrimination arising from disability was successful. The Employment Tribunal held that her dismissal was a result of conduct arising from her disability (as the peri-menopausal condition caused forgetfulness and confusion) and the employer was unable to justify the treatment as a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim (i.e. having honest staff). The statement made by the employee at the relevant time was not true but the employee believed it to be so as a result of their forgetfulness caused by their peri-menopausal symptoms.

Kownacka v Textbook Teachers Ltd

The managing director of an employer made comments to an employee with cancer to the effect of not taking the diagnosis seriously and that it was "no big deal" that the treatment would lead to early menopause. It was found that, while the managing director did not intend to harass the employee, the comments had the effect of violating her dignity and of creating an offensive environment, so constituted harassment.

If employers address menopause in the workplace incorrectly, there is legal risk as they may be exposed to potential sex, age and/or disability discrimination and harassment claims as well as unfair dismissal.

Employers should support employees to not only reduce the risk of potential claims but to benefit business at every level.  It is extraordinary that this area is so under-developed in the workplace in 2021. 

What can you do?

You can do so much to end the negative taboo – to create an inclusive culture of support to bring about business benefits.  Everybody has a role to play.  Lead by example – become a creator (!).

There are good "best practice" options available, such as:

Training

We have extensive experience of delivering Menopause Awareness sessions to front line managers.  We never cease to be surprised by the impact of such sessions – many managers taking the opportunity to speak up and explain their own story of what happened to them,  Our culture change programmes seek to effect real change – to create an inclusive supportive culture where concerns can be addressed and reasonable support provided at the right time.  This in turn reduces sick absence, increases engagement and motivation, and, increases retention of your most valuable asset – your people. 

Menopause policy

Offering an environment where employees feel comfortable and supported in raising concerns they may have. A menopause policy (this does not need to be lengthy or complicated) is often a good starting point to raising awareness and leading to more open conversation.  That said, there is nothing worse than having a policy that is not embedded into an organisation in the right way.

Reasonable adjustments

Under the Equality Act 2010, the severe symptoms of the menopause (if lasting 12 months or more) have the potential, in some cases, to constitute a disability in accordance with the definition contained within the Equality Act 2010. Symptoms of menopause can be physical (e.g. hot flushes, headaches, muscle pain, palpitations) and/or psychological (e.g. memory loss, confusion, anxiety).  This may mean that there is a duty to put in place reasonable adjustments by way of support, noting that failure to do this may very well result in a finding of disability discrimination. This can include simple adjustments, subject to discussions with the affected individual(s), such as:

  • Desk fans.
  • Access to cold water.
  • Suitable facilities (washrooms, lavatories etc).
  • Amended uniforms where possible.
  • Use of quiet rooms/areas to assist with concentration.

Are you doing enough and should you be doing more? 

The short answer is yes, of course you can do more!

Communication with employees is crucial in addressing the menopause in the workplace. Retail giant ASOS has recently launched policies that allow employees to work flexibly as well as short-notice time off, whilst going through the menopause(2).This proactive approach is likely to become more common for businesses in the future, so don’t be left behind.

A recent survey by Sky News found that a lack of support in the workplace means that talent has to take time off or leave their jobs due to menopause. Research by HRReview indicates that over half of UK businesses do not currently have any dedicated menopause support in place. 

Whether or not the Equality Act 2010 is amended to include menopause as a standalone protected characteristic is not the critical point.  As outlined above, menopause has been found to amount to a disability in various cases.  The key point is that some spend so much money on legal fees defending claims – e.g. contending that one is not disabled, rather than focusing on the proactive steps that can be taken to foster an inclusive supporting culture to bring out the best in your talent, to reduce sick absence, to increase engagement and motivation and to increase retention.  Isn't that investment a far better use of your money?

Do get in touch if we can assist you on your journey – whether by exploring our Menopause Awareness sessions (standalone or part of our wider culture change programmes), or, in tailoring a Menopause Policy that is fit for your organisation. It's way overdue for many.

We are passionate and dedicated to supporting you to bring about change in this well-overdue area.  For further information please see here and/or contact Joanne Boyle.