How can employers improve menopause support?

Andrea London explains how businesses can start to break the stigma and increase awareness of the symptoms affecting menopausal employees

You would not immediately think that menopause and employment had very much if anything to do with each other, but they absolutely do. With mature women being the fastest growing workforce demographic, and three out of four women experiencing symptoms (with 25 per cent of women suffering serious symptoms such as memory loss, confusion, fatigue, stomach pain, headaches, depression, anxiety, panic disorder, uncontrollable sweats, to name but a few), and such symptoms lasting on average around three years, there is no way these matters can – or should – simply be kept out of the workplace.

Given menopause can be the possible basis for numerous employment-related claims, including but not limited to constructive unfair dismissal, health and safety, harassment, sex, age and now disability discrimination too, the potential basis for a perfect storm would appear to be developing fast. In 2021, People Management reported that there were 16 cases in the Employment Tribunal which cited menopause, and in the first half of 2021, there were already 10 such cases, which was expected to double.

Tempting as it may be to focus on the legal risks, which are potentially extensive, not to mention expensive (a reminder here that discrimination claims are not “capped” in terms of the awards which can be made to a successful claimant), employers would do better to take a collaborative and informed approach to this issue, which is going to challenge many of the 3.5 million women over the age of 50 in employment.

The negative perception, the remaining taboos around a very personal subject, the discomfiture about talking about, and the unfortunate lack of sensitivity toward, this medical issue from employers are all very unhelpful. This situation is not assisted by underlying concerns that clumsy attempts to discuss such matters by employers could result in allegations of breach of trust and confidence or invasion of privacy by the relevant employees.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. While the symptoms – both physical and psychological – are phenomenally diverse and can be extremely debilitating, it’s a fallacy that employers must be experts on the subject to assist employees going through it. Quite simply, they don’t. What they can do is support a colleague and implement company policy. This is clearly a fact which only highlights the importance for employers of starting to take steps now to implement internal guidelines and develop a menopause policy at the earliest opportunity. This will provide a good foundation on which employers can then build.

The benefits to employers of actively encouraging an environment in which discussion on this subject occurs openly without embarrassment and normalises the subject of menopause are abundant. Such an environment will not only help make those affected feel valued, but will retain an inclusive and diverse workforce and assist in retaining the productivity, skills and experience which mature employees bring to a team. Further, it should encourage a culture of respect and responsibility, and show other employees that their employer will support them when they need to be supported. The commercial advantages too, however, are not without their merits and can include:

  • Often very low-cost and simple adjustments: adapting uniforms for comfort, a desk fan, time off for GP appointments or flexible working for a period, easier access to bathroom facilities and cold drinking water, seat placement near an opening window.

  • Avoiding the costs of recruitment and training of a new employee, if the employee undergoing menopause decides to leave

  • Avoiding the costs of absence (still often cited as “work stress” despite the underlying cause)

  • Avoiding legal disputes, being not only the fees to run a case but the management time and distraction and possible reputational risks.

A proactive and flexible approach will almost certainly have a positive effect, so in this regard employers really have nothing to lose if they opt to take the ‘prevention is better than the cure’ approach to this burgeoning issue. The range of material available to employers to guide them or provide appropriate training in this area is enormous – but many of the considerations are quite simply common sense.

The first step, however, is for employers to be aware and raise that awareness, assess the demographic of their workforces and, if appropriate, take steps to undertake a risk assessment. In any case, consider implementing a menopause policy. From that foundation, practical and effective menopause support can be supplemented, as needed and perhaps in collaboration with those affected, with further training, possible adjustments and support services.

Andrea London is a partner at Winckworth Sherwood