The issue of how to responsibly handle menopause in the workplace has recently been brought to the fore. Research by Vodafone and Opinium found that two-thirds of women who suffered from menopause symptoms said it impacted their work and that more support was needed. With half the population likely to experience menopause during their lifetime, how should employers sensitively approach menopause when it comes to managing its impact on work?
Menopause should, I believe, be considered alongside the likes of pregnancy, and time should be given to investing in specific policies for it within the wider HR guidance, which protects the business and its employees alike. The problem is the current legal framework does not support this.
The way in which menopause affects women can vary enormously from person to person but, for those who suffer from extreme and often debilitating symptoms, there is simply little, if any, protection in the workplace. Acas – the advisory, conciliation and arbitration service for employees – recently issued guidance to help businesses navigate policies around menopause, but it falls short of a legislative change.
The scale of the issue
According to Acas, around two million women over the age of 50 have difficulties at work as a result of their menopause symptoms, and it’s estimated that one in 20 women could go through early menopause. What’s more, one in eight of the British workforce are women aged over 50 – and that number is rising.
When you add to the fact that a third of those surveyed by Vodafone said they hid symptoms at work, and 50 per cent felt there was a stigma around talking about menopause, it’s clear the issue needs considerable and urgent attention.
The current picture
There is no legal requirement to have a menopause policy or to protect employees experiencing menopause symptoms. Nor is there legal protection for businesses that experience undue impact because an employee’s menopause symptoms are affecting their ability to work.
When cases of discrimination are brought to an employment tribunal, they often fail because of a misconception that they should be treated as a disability claim. In fact, like pregnancy, they should fall under sex discrimination.
There are two main strands of law that are relevant to the menopause: the Equality Act 2010, which protects against discrimination, and the Health and Safety At Work Act 1974, which says an employer must ensure health, safety and welfare at work.
Menopause tribunal claims should be considered as sex discrimination, rather than as a disability claim, because the claim often specifically relates to unfair treatment of an individual because of their sex. For example, treating the menopause less seriously than an ongoing health problem in a male employee.
What should happen
Currently, there is insufficient legal guidance and support for both employers and employees. As such, there is a clear argument for a wider menopause at work policy that could sit alongside pregnancy rights in any HR handbook. A national policy would help both businesses and employees by offering legal protection when women experience menopause symptoms that impact their ability to do their job. In Scotland, ministers have already looked at bringing this into law. It’s clear the rest of the UK needs to catch up.
Menopause will impact pretty much every second person on earth directly, and indirectly it will impact almost all of us. With an increasing number of women working into their 50s and beyond, it is clearly an issue that will only grow in prominence in the workplace.
While current legislation plays catch up, it’s essential that businesses use all the relevant support and guidance available to them, through the likes of Acas, to help implement sufficient plans to protect themselves and their employees now and in the future.
Adam Pavey is an employment lawyer and director at Pannone Corporate