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Menopause: making it work at work

Posted: 18/10/2022

Tuesday 18 October marks World Menopause Day, and with last month seeing World Menopause & Work Day, it is fair to say that menopause is being talked about like never before. Societal attitudes are clearly – if gradually – changing. No more do women feel obliged to put up silently with ‘the change’ with public figures from Davina McCall to Michelle Obama openly speaking about their experience of the menopause. It is not just individuals who are speaking up – earlier this year the government established a menopause taskforce and published a policy paper on menopause in the workplace.

One reason for the emergence of menopause as a key issue is the number of menopausal women currently in the workplace. The cross-party Women and Equalities Committee has recently revealed that 4.5 million women aged 50-64 are currently in employment - that is 31% of the work force who may be around menopausal age. According to a May 2022 report by the Fawcett Society, 44% of menopausal women in employment say their ability to work has been affected by their symptoms. Despite this, 8 in 10 menopausal women say their workplace has no basic support in place for them, such as support networks or absence policies.  

The statistics are clear - a significant proportion of the UK workforce is experiencing issues relating to the menopause, and the impact on employee wellbeing, retention and productivity is potentially huge. Middle aged women – those who typically experience the menopause (although it can affect younger women, and also the trans and binary community) - finally feel able to speak up. But what about those who have no experience of menopause – how can a younger, male, manager for example, feel comfortable about supporting menopausal colleagues? Pity the man who suggests a female colleague’s performance or behaviour is because she is going through ‘the change’.

The first step to providing support is understanding what the menopause is, and how it might affect colleagues in the workplace. Managers should be aware of measures they can take to help menopausal staff. It is also important to understand the legal position.

Pause for thought – what exactly is it?

The menopause is the time in a woman’s life where periods stop due to a decrease in hormone levels. This usually happens between the ages of 45 and 55, although it is possible for several reasons to occur earlier (or later). Symptoms vary in every case, but include anxiety, mood swings, hot flushes, sensitive skin, joint pain, poor memory, sleep disturbance and ‘brain fog’. For many it can feel as if they are being bombarded by a variety of physical and psychological symptoms. These symptoms last for four years on average, but can continue for much longer.

The law

The Equality Act 2010 shields those with a ‘protected characteristic’ from discrimination. Menopause is itself not a protected characteristic, and those who believe they have been treated less favourably as a result of the menopause have to shoehorn a claim into one of the other protected areas, generally age, sex, gender reassignment or disability. This can be problematic for a number of reasons. Although menopausal symptoms can be severe enough to meet the legal test of ‘disability’, this will not always be the case, and employment tribunals have reached different conclusions on this matter – as we have already noted, the menopause affects different women in very different ways. Similarly, it can be difficult to get a claim off the ground based on sex discrimination as the treatment complained of is not discriminatory towards all women, only those of menopausal age. The same is true of a claim for age discrimination – only not all middle aged people are affected, only females.

Suggestions have been made that the Equality Act should be amended to include the menopause as a standalone protected characteristic. Many, including the Women and Equalities Committee chair, Caroline Noakes MP, believe this lack of standalone recognition is ‘no longer tenable’, and that menopause-related claims should not have to be shoehorned into claims based on existing protected characteristics. Another option would be to enact section 14 of the Equality Act which allows claims to be based on dual discrimination and which has never been brought into force. This would mean, for example, that a woman could bring a claim based on sex and age discrimination jointly, rather than have to establish less favourable treatment on the basis of sex and/or age as distinct claims.

However, the government indicated in its July 2022 policy paper that it has no plans to amend the Equality Act, on the basis that the existing law provides sufficient protection for those experiencing the menopause. The UK is not alone in this, as no country currently expressly outlaws discrimination on the grounds of menopause. Since the policy paper was published, we do of course have a new female prime minister who is committed to overhauling existing employment legislation – so is it optimistic to think that the UK could blaze a trail for menopausal women in the workplace?

The ball is in management’s court

Although many male and younger female senior executives will have no first-hand experience of the menopause, broaching the subject need not get you hot under the collar. Facilitating an environment for open and judgement-free discussion is the first step (43% of Britons who experienced menopause symptoms said they felt too embarrassed to ask for help in the workplace, according to research commissioned by Vodafone). The key aim is that everyone feels informed and comfortable having these discussions.

The management of staff who are experiencing menopausal symptoms should be seen as a two-layered task. As each person’s experiences differ, you must not only educate yourself on the objective (the stats, the averages), but also drill down on the subjective (talk to your employees and do not make assumptions – remember each person’s experience is different).

Policies are the best policy

In our experience, a key takeaway is for employers to have a policy in place, and for staff to be familiar and comply with the policy. A 2021 CIPD poll showed that just 24% of organisations had a menopause policy in place. A policy provides a useful framework for issues to be addressed and is also a tool for promoting the message that those going through the menopause will be supported. You could also encourage your employer to put in place menopause networks, and appoint a menopause champion, to provide support, information and resources. Encourage your organisation to sign up to the Wellbeing of Women’s Menopause Pledge.

Does your organisation’s absence policy deal with menopause issues? Few policies do, and menopause leave is not a legal requirement, However, in London, Sadiq Khan introduced menopause leave for City Hall employees earlier this year – should your organisation do the same?

Managers should adopt an open approach to suggestions from menopausal employees. Consider simple adjustments such as providing a desk space in the cooler corner of the office, or a desk fan, or allowing some dress-code flexibility where uniforms may be hot and uncomfortable. Remember, everyone’s symptoms will be different and so be fair in your considerations of adjustment requests (focus on that ‘subjective’).

Flexible working requests should also be taken seriously as employees with at least 26 weeks’ continuous employment can make such a request for any reason. Those experiencing common symptoms of the menopause may ask for flexible start times if they have trouble sleeping, or more frequent home working days to allow for a more comfortable environment.

Conflict management

As a senior executive you need to be clear on the correct way to approach grievances and disciplinary issues. It is important to deal with these head on to avoid potential escalation into costly and damaging litigation. If you find yourself on the receiving end of a menopause-related complaint, seek legal advice immediately.

The menopausal senior executive – know your rights

The mental and physical health needs of senior executives often get overlooked as their focus and time is dispersed across the business and its staff. If you are a senior manager going through the menopause, think about the steps you can take to make yourself happier, healthier and more productive. If you are struggling to concentrate in the post-sleepless-night mornings, let your staff know that you will be working flexibly on an ad-hoc basis (perhaps you could be on-call during those hours). Remember that your company’s policies do not just apply to the people you manage.

This is a topic that needs to be at the forefront of senior executives’ minds. Gaps in legislation mean that it is down to you to create an open, judgement-free environment to support yourself, your staff and the needs of your business.

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