There have been recent calls from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) for employers to strengthen their support for employees who suffer from serious menopausal symptoms.
World Menopause Day today (18 October) is a timely opportunity for businesses to stand back and take stock of their policies, procedures and approach to supporting staff undergoing menopause and reflect on what else they can do to make a meaningful difference to such colleagues.
The DWP’s calls for action are made more urgent by the fact that menopausal women have, in recent years, been found to be the fastest-growing workforce demographic. The impact of menopause on the people experiencing it is not always the same, but it is believed that one in four experience severe symptoms that impact on their day-to-day life.
Menopause is currently not in itself a specific protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010. However, if the symptoms have a ‘substantial’ and ‘long term’ adverse effect on a woman’s ability to carry out her normal day-to-day activities, it could be found to satisfy the definition of disability under the Act, which would give rise to a duty on the employer to make reasonable adjustments.
In addition, employees who are treated less favourably or disadvantaged because of their menopause symptoms may also be protected against discrimination based on their sex and potentially age (although women in their 20s and 30s can go through early menopause, as can those who have a hysterectomy, cancer treatment or other medical conditions).
Menopause symptoms can be both physical and psychological, and can have a significant impact on daily life for some women, with hot flushes, night sweats, poor concentration, brain fog, difficulty sleeping, headaches, depression and anxiety all being common (but not exhaustive) symptoms.
The issues faced by women experiencing menopause in the workplace were highlighted by the recent findings of the Women and Equalities Committee’s (WEC) inquiry. It found that 31 per cent have missed work because of their menopause symptoms, with only 12 per cent of women who responded having asked for workplace adjustments. The small percentage asking for adjustments is down to a combination of reasons, such as concern about how others would react and not knowing who they should speak to.
The good news is that solutions to the difficulties encountered by women undergoing menopause are often easy to implement and shouldn’t require a huge financial outlay from employers. There does nevertheless appear to be a general need to increase understanding and support around menopause within the workplace, with the WEC finding that only 29 per cent of the women who participated in the survey felt supported by their line managers.
There are various ways in which organisations can support staff through menopause, which include:
- Menopause policy – many employers are now including a menopause policy within their staff handbook to raise awareness of it and its impact in the workplace, encouraging open conversations between management and staff, as well as ensuring employees know where to go for relevant advice and assistance.
- Access to support – having a nominated person in HR or within the occupational health team, or even a named ‘menopause champion’, can be useful to encourage conversations with staff to understand their needs and offer support.
- Training – providing training to managers to support a better understanding of menopause and its impact on work can equip line managers to have more effective conversations with staff, as well as having a greater awareness of the support that can be provided.
- Reasonable adjustments – implementing workplace adjustments can help workers with their transition through menopause and may include flexible working, allowing time off for health appointments or more breaks. It can also include changes to the physical work environment, such as temperature control.
A proactive approach to tackling menopause in the workplace will create an environment in which affected employees feel supported, which should hopefully mean less impact on their lives inside and outside of work.
Merran Sewell is an employment partner at Gateley Legal