The impact that menopause symptoms can have on women at work is slowly being recognised by employers and the government. Did you know that menopausal women are the fastest-growing demographic in the workplace? Yet, as a society we have been very slow to acknowledge the disadvantage women can face at work because of this.
This situation seems set to change. Last month the Women and Equalities Committee (WEC) launched an inquiry, Menopause and the Workplace, asking if existing legislation and workplace practices are enough to address the issue. Probably not, is the short answer. The long answer is much more complex. Part of the problem is the stigma around this topic, with many feeling too embarrassed to talk about it and managers not having the awareness or confidence to deal with it.
Contrary to popular belief, menopause symptoms are not all about hot flushes and poor sleep, although sustained poor sleep can seriously affect performance at work. Many women experience a range of symptoms including anxiety, loss of confidence, migraines and an inability to remember things clearly, referred to as “brain fog”. The average age to reach the menopause in the UK is 51 years, and it tends to affect women between 45 and 55. The perimenopause takes place before this when a woman’s hormone balance changes. The CIPD estimates that almost 900,000 women have left their jobs because of the menopause. That means experienced senior women are leaving employment unnecessarily. So tackling this issue is about retaining talent as much as it is about minimising legal risks. And, as the WEC inquiry announcement explains, losing senior women will only exacerbate a lack of diversity at executive levels and can contribute to an organisation’s gender pay gap.
We are starting to see employers address these challenges by introducing bespoke menopause policies setting out the support and resources available to employees. Ideally the policy should also identify what role managers can play in supporting female employees affected. Symptoms can affect performance and attendance, so employers should be looking at a range of steps to help affected women which could involve breaks in work schedules, better ventilation in offices, flexible working, changes in travel and changes in work tasks.
There are other aspects to consider too. There are health and safety duties and equality obligations, meaning that in some cases a risk assessment may be appropriate. Employers may also want to involve occupational health or refer an employee to other sources of internal support. This is about signposting what is available rather than trying to give advice. It’s also important to take into account the preferences of individual employees and to avoid making general assumptions.
And perhaps most importantly, employers need to take steps to make people feel comfortable talking about the menopause in the workplace. You can’t simply issue a policy on its own and expect that will break the ice in respect of (what is seen by many as) a taboo issue; so any policy needs to be introduced along with appropriate support and training.
For employers not clear whether to act, take note: there are legal risks in failing to support women who are experiencing serious symptoms. Claims before the employment tribunal have been increasing. They have been raised using various different legal rights; some are based on sex discrimination, some have a disability discrimination underpinning and others potentially have an age discrimination angle. One of the issues that the WEC inquiry is considering is whether there is a need for a specific protected characteristic covering the menopause. So as uncomfortable as it may be for some to talk about, this issue is only going to grow in importance for employers.
Gillian MacLellan is a partner at international law firm CMS