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Menopause and the workplace

Posted: 28/10/2021


Menopause Awareness Month has shone some light on the impact that the menopause can have in the workplace. According to a recent survey, fewer than 50% of companies provide any support for perimenopausal or menopausal staff. In this article, we examine why this matters and what steps employers could take to support affected staff.

Why does the menopause matter at work?

The menopause affects us all at work. Even if we do not experience menopausal symptoms ourselves, we will inevitably have colleagues who do.

As perimenopausal and menopausal people are among the fastest growing demographic of the workforce, the impact on employers and their staff will therefore only increase. While the menopause usually occurs between the ages of 45 and 55, the NHS estimates that around one in 100 affected people will experience a premature menopause before the age of 40. Menopause can be also triggered by medical or surgical interventions, such as some cancer treatments or a hysterectomy, and can therefore affect employees of all ages.

We use the term “people” when referring to the menopause and perimenopause because, although most will think of women, those from the non-binary, transgender and intersex communities can also be affected by menopausal symptoms due to the natural process or treatments or surgeries.

It is estimated that three out of four people going through the perimenopause or menopause experience symptoms that can last several years. There are over 30 recognised symptoms of the perimenopause and menopause, with a number of these relating to mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, panic attacks, mood swings and problems with memory and confidence. It is unsurprising, therefore, that menopause can have a significant impact on an individual’s performance at work.

The menopause and discrimination

The ongoing stigma and lack of education around menopause can lead to bullying and harassment in the workplace. Many employees report that they do not talk about their menopause at work because they feel embarrassed, are concerned they will not be supported, will be treated less favourably or viewed as less capable than before. This can create or exacerbate workplace issues and evidence suggests that a number of those experiencing the menopause or perimenopause leave the workplace altogether.

What is clear is that discrimination and harassment at work can worsen menopausal symptoms of stress and anxiety. Similarly, negative or discriminatory attitudes can make it less likely that individuals from these groups will be open about their status, any difficulties they are experiencing, or seek help.

Menopause as a disability

People experiencing the menopause may be disabled for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010 (the Act). Even if menopausal symptoms are not sufficiently serious to constitute a disability under the Act, inappropriate and insensitive handling of the menopause could well constitute indirect sex and/or age discrimination.

Under the Act, a disability is defined as a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on a person’s ability to carry out day to day activities. Long-term in this context means the impairment has lasted or is likely to last for 12 months or more. As described, the symptoms of menopause are varied and their nature and severity will differ from person to person.

While there is currently a lack of research and information, anecdotal reports suggest that the menopause can make pre-existing health conditions and disabilities such as MS, arthritis, diabetes and mental health conditions worse, often triggering or coinciding with a flare up of symptoms. A number of symptoms will interconnect or overlap and it can be difficult to ascertain the cause. While the menopause itself will not always amount to a disability, for the purposes of the Act, it may well meet this test for some cases.

Employees who are treated less favourably for reasons related to the menopause could bring a disability discrimination claim against their employer. In addition, employers have a duty to make reasonable adjustments for disabled employees and failure to do so could lead to an employment tribunal claim.

To date there have been only a handful of disability discrimination claims based on the menopause in the employment tribunal (ET) and these have reached differing conclusions. Most recently, in the case of Rooney v Leicester City Council, the Employment Appeal Tribunal overruled the ET’s decision to strike out a disability discrimination claim based on the menopause for having no reasonable prospect of success. The case has now been returned to the ET to consider whether the symptoms experienced by Ms Rooney meet the test for disability under the Act.

What adjustments could employers consider?

Given that every person’s experience of the menopause is different, there is no exhaustive list of reasonable adjustments that could be made to the workplace environment, and employers will always need to consult with the individual employee and seek occupational health or other medical evidence where appropriate.

Adjustments could include the following:

  • increased ventilation
  • better access to toilet/washing facilities
  • adjusting working time rules/break times
  • relaxing uniform policies
  • adjusting inflexible policies which can penalise those experiencing symptoms (eg absence management or performance-related targets).

Improving the workplace

So how can employers go about improving the workplace for employees who are undergoing the menopause, particularly when many employees are not willing to disclose details of the condition and the symptoms they are experiencing?

Firstly, employers should consider implementing a workplace policy that covers issues such as flexible working, sickness and performance management, and identifying sources of support.

Training is also important to educate, increase awareness and empower managers to feel confident in talking to and supporting employees who are experiencing symptoms of menopause. Management should consider buddying and mentoring schemes and/or established points of contact - perhaps utilising staff who have been through the menopause - to provide encouragement and support.

All of these steps should encourage employees to feel more comfortable about being open about their symptoms, and to continue to reach their potential by discussing what adjustments they may need.

House of Commons inquiry

In July 2021 the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee launched an inquiry into workplace issues surrounding the menopause. This enquiry, which closed on 17 September 2021, included examining existing discrimination legislation and workplace practices to consider whether enough is being done to prevent women from leaving their jobs as a result of menopausal symptoms or suffering other adverse consequences. It will also make recommendations with a view to shaping policies to address gender equality.

The inquiry also considers whether further legislation is required to enable employers to put in place a workplace menopause policy. While the findings of the inquiry are pending, we advise that taking steps such as those outlined above will benefit both employers and employees by:

  • creating an inclusive culture and a collegiate working environment
  • ensuring that those affected can remain at work both during the perimenopause and the menopause and for years beyond
  • reducing menopause-related absences
  • reducing HR and management time required to resolve employee relations issues
  • reducing the risk and associated costs of legal claims where issues have been badly managed

 

This article was co-authored by Sarah Parkinson, the knowledge lawyer for Penningtons Manches Cooper's employment practice


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