As the UK population is rising, so is our working age. With over 4 million more workers aged 50 plus than there were in the year 2000 and more women staying in employment past the age of 45, menopause in the workplace is becoming an increasingly important issue for employers. However, despite the fact that more than half the population will experience the menopause at some point in their lives, it is still rarely a topic of open discussion in the workplace, mainly due to embarrassment, stigma or lack of awareness.
Some employers have picked up on this and are leading the way with their policies and practices. Sadiq Khan recently announced that he was initiating a “world leading” and “transformative” menopause policy at City Hall, which will allow greater flexibility and leave entitlements for those experiencing menopausal symptoms. Many large employers have also put in place menopause policies to support their workers. According to Professor Jo Brewis, co-author of the Government Report on Menopause, “menopausal women are the fastest growing workforce demographic“. In light of this, employers can no longer avoid the menopause as a taboo subject in the workplace and need to ensure that adjustments are offered to support workers who are experiencing menopausal symptoms.
What is the impact of the menopause on workers?
Menopause can vary hugely in its nature and severity. The NHS lists various symptoms such as difficulty sleeping, anxiety and issues with memory and concentration. Symptoms often last for around four years, though for some they can last for much longer. As a result, unless employers make “reasonable adjustments” to support them, workers may find it significantly more difficult to carry out their role, leading to reduced confidence in performance. It is also important to recognise that the menopause does not just affect women: trans men going through a change in gender from woman to man may also experience symptoms of the menopause and/or “perimenopause” (the transitional phase prior to the menopause).
What should employers be mindful of?
While the menopause and perimenopause are not, of themselves, protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010 (the Act), in certain circumstances employers could still be open to claims of discrimination. The menopause is a factor of sex and age and (in severe cases) the effects of the menopause could amount to a disability; all of which are protected characteristics under the Act. In an employment tribunal (ET) case, an employee, who had been dismissed for poor performance, which she had attributed to problems arising from the menopause, succeeded in a sex discrimination claim. The ET found that the employer had not followed the proper process before dismissing for performance where ill health was raised by the employee and that it would not have treated a man suffering from a health issue in the same way.
In addition, the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 states that an employer must, where reasonably practical, ensure the health, safety and welfare of their employees at work. With three out of four women experiencing symptoms of the menopause and one in four experiencing serious symptoms, it is crucial that employers support the needs of workers who may be struggling.
What can employers do?
- Encourage an open dialogue, raise awareness and provide support
Employers should consider putting in place workplace policies to support workers who are going through the menopause, as well as providing training to senior management on how to recognise possible symptoms and support such workers. This will help managers to understand the menopause and its effect on their workers, give them the confidence to address and discuss such issues with their workers and to manage performance concerns sensitively and fairly.
The menopause can be a very sensitive issue for many, and it may also be helpful to give workers the option of speaking to someone who has specific training, such as a counsellor, trade union representative or menopause or wellbeing champion.
- Make suitable adjustments
Ensure that adjustments are made to accommodate workers who are experiencing the effects of the menopause, in order to reduce the risk of discrimination or victimisation claims. What adjustments are considered reasonable and appropriate will depend on a number of factors, including cost and effectiveness, but this might include flexible working and home working.
Changes can also be made to the workplace environment, such as improving temperature control and providing a desk fan, arranging a suitable rest area and ensuring that toilet facilities are easily accessible. It may also be useful to carry out regular workplace assessments to ensure that a worker’s environment is not worsening their symptoms.This may help to reduce sickness absence relating to menopausal symptoms. Absences due to menopause should be managed with care and sensitivity and it may be appropriate to record time off sick because of the menopause in a way that can be distinguished from other absences.
- Next steps – summary
Employers should put policies in place, train managers and consider whether any changes can be made to the workplace, ahead of issues arising. That will have the benefit of both improving staff wellbeing and productivity and minimising the risk of claims.