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Menopause: A very hot topic

Once a taboo subject that was swept under the carpet and given little attention, the topic of the menopause is being brought to the top of most HR teams’ agendas across the country.

The menopause. A natural part of every woman’s life when menstruation periods permanently stop, but a time that can be stressful and difficult due, in part, to the symptoms that they must deal with. Organisations have been historically slow to recognise the affect menopausal symptoms have on female employees but that is changing through heightened public awareness.

The bottom line

For employers, how seriously they decide to treat this issue will likely have a serious impact on their business. Not only will considering menopausal workers’ requirements help avoid costly tribunal claims (which as we will see are on the rise) but having menopause-related issues in the forefront of business’s minds will assist the bottom line. For example, as half of the workforce is female, menopausal sickness absence (if poorly managed) can have a significant impact on performance and productivity. These considerations are becoming increasingly pertinent considering that the rates of employment of women aged over 50 is increasing. Thus, there are likely to be more menopausal women in the workplace than ever before meaning that menopausal issues such as sickness absence will become even more important to manage.

It is also worth bearing in mind the positive impact supporting menopausal workers in the workplace can have in attracting and retaining talent. Competition for candidates in recruitment has never been so great than it is now. We are seeing many more vacancies than candidates. For prospective (and current) employees, how a company treats its workforce and their approach to issues such as the menopause has never been more important. The most successful companies in overcoming the talent shortage will be the ones that take these issues seriously. Further, given the increased prominence of environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) considerations, internal and external perception on issues such as equality will likely have a profound impact on whether a prospective employee decides to join (or stay at) a company.

So, what can companies do to help and support women through the menopause and what, if any, legal protection do women going through the menopause have?

First of all, understanding the effects of menopause is key:

Effects

The symptoms of the menopause are wide-ranging and can vary in severity. Often women experience a range of symptoms, both physical and psychological, including but not limited to:

  • Anxiety
  • Hot flushes
  • Dizziness
  • Headaches
  • Panic attacks
  • Memory loss and reduced concentration
  • Depression
  • Fatigue

The stigma

The commentary surrounding the menopause is that it occurs in ‘women of a certain age’ (usually between the ages of 45 and 55) and they go through a period of brain fog, hot flushes and mood swings. But that’s not always the case, in fact perimenopause can occur up to five years before the menopause begins and other conditions like endometriosis can cause early onset menopause in younger women.

Recently, Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has spoken publicly about the stigma surrounding menopause and how anxious she is about being in the public eye whilst going through it. She is not the only woman to speak publicly about menopause, however it can often be an uncomfortable situation for any woman to have with their employer. 

The Workplace

Over the past two years we have seen a marked increase in clients asking for menopause policies to assist in helping managers better understand their obligations towards menopausal employees. However, many organisations are still unprepared to deal with menopausal staff and have therefore left themselves vulnerable to a range of employment-related claims.

So, what are the risks for employers, and can menopause classify as a disability?

Discrimination

There has been a marked increase in claims from women citing menopause as the reason for their claim. In fact, in 2021 the number of Employment Tribunal cases rose to 20 with claimants citing menopause-related grievances as the primary factor for the claim. These claims have ranged from age discrimination to sex discrimination and sometimes even disability discrimination.

Another contributing factor is that the symptoms of the menopause are also symptoms of other illnesses or conditions that are classed as disabilities. The question is, can the menopause be classed as a disability when it is a natural part of a woman’s life? And more importantly, should it be?

Age discrimination

Typically, the menopause occurs when women reach middle age, so when they feel they’ve been treated unfairly compared to younger workers as a result of their menopausal symptoms, there may be grounds for an age discrimination case.

Sex discrimination

Some organisations assume that menopause exclusively affects women. Whilst it is evident that the menopause will affect women, it can also impact trans and non-binary people. It’s crucial, therefore, that any menopause policy that is implemented is not solely aimed at women but rather the gender-neutral term ‘menopausal workers’ and to remember that the menopause is not strictly confined to woman. Whilst it is overwhelmingly women, transmen, transwomen, non-binary and intersex people may also experience symptoms.

Disability discrimination

Although the menopause is not automatically identified as a disability, recent case law has held that the symptoms that it causes may. Symptoms that frequently have a significant impact on a person’s day-to-day activities and their ability to perform in the workplace can be classified as a disability and therefore employers need to be careful how they treat menopausal workers.

Employers should note that disability discrimination is the most commonly pleaded claim on this issue in the tribunals, due to requirements for reasonable adjustments (discussed further below) to be put in place.

Supporting menopausal workers

In 2021, it was recorded that there were almost 4 million women in the UK who were likely to experience menopausal symptoms while working. This number is almost certainly going to grow, so how can employers support women as they make the menopausal transition?

Fortunately, there are lots of resources for employers to refer to in order to improve their understanding of the physical, mental and emotional changes a woman will likely experience as they navigate the three phases of the menopause: perimenopause, menopause and postmenopause.

There are so many steps that an employer or HR team can take to make life a little easier for women dealing with the menopause. These can include:

  1. Creating a Menopause Policy

In 2019, Channel 4 made headline news by becoming the first UK media agency to have a dedicated Menopause Policy. A document which would support employees experiencing menopausal symptoms and provide guidance to line managers in how to support their colleagues as they navigate the menopausal symptoms.

Despite this, a survey of 1,025 HR professionals showed that 72% of businesses don’t have a menopause policy in place.

By taking the simple step of creating and implementing a menopause policy, you can show your employees that you care.

  1. Making reasonable adjustments

The Women and Equality Committee reported that nearly a third of women have called in sick and missed work due to menopausal symptoms and feeling unable to make it into the workplace, and only one in those 10 women had requested workplace adjustments.

Having a menopause policy in place will already make female staff feel comfortable to request adjustments to their workplace environment. Adjustments you could make include:

  1. Allowing flexibility in the workplace dress code
  2. Implementing temperature control by way of providing a desk fan
  3. Allowing flexible working patterns (remote working, reduction in working hours or changing standard working hours)

Make sure you have two-way communication so your employees feel comfortable and empowered to request adjustments.

  1. Employee support

Simply put, make sure you have support tools in place. Whether that’s by providing extra training to line managers and senior management teams, or by upskilling your HR departments. Invest in an employee assistance programme and provide details for external support organisations who can step in when employees don’t feel comfortable speaking to colleagues.

Summary

Given that the menopause is natural part of life, employers must be prepared in dealing with the issues it causes. Not only will supporting menopausal workers help foster a supportive internal working environment but it will help attract and keep the best talent. Managing menopausal issues in the right way will help alleviate the impact of menopausal sickness absence, in addition to ensuring that employers are not on the receiving end of costly tribunal claim, which will help the bottom line. Just as importantly however, adopting a menopause policy is a simple, yet effective, way for employers to show employees that you care about them which will help foster a supportive, progressive and efficient working environment.

 

These notes have been prepared for the purpose of articles only. They should not be regarded as a substitute for taking legal advice.

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