Should menopause be classed as a disability?

23 Sep 2021 By Charlotte Geesin

With research showing the number of employment tribunals concerning menopause have quadrupled, Charlotte Geesin explains why firms need to have a specific policy

When it comes to menopause, employers do not currently have any specific legal obligations they must meet. However, they do have legal obligations not to treat employees unfairly – or to discriminate against them – because of their sex. This means they should not use the menopause as a means to treat female employees unfavourably.

Menopause itself isn’t classed as a disability; however, some severe symptoms might constitute disabilities, meaning this could trigger an employer’s obligation to make reasonable adjustments and protect the individual from less favourable treatment.

For example, an employee might experience extreme hot flushes which might affect their ability to carry out their work as normal. They may raise this with their employer and ask to be moved to a desk nearer to a window. If the employer refused to make this adjustment, this could amount to a failure to make reasonable adjustments and potentially – if a judge found in the employee’s favour on the categorisation of them as a disabled person – could amount to a successful unlawful discrimination claim.

Do employers need a menopause policy?

There is currently no legal obligation for employers to have a menopause policy, but it is something worth looking at implementing, which could bring significant benefits to a business. A policy would initially serve as a means of highlighting awareness among managers of menopause as a real occupational health issue. 

Workplace policies ultimately serve as useful education tools, and the more educated staff members are about real-life issues, the less fear, bias and discrimination tends to arise. This helps break taboos and support a workplace culture where women feel comfortable discussing their symptoms.

As an example, it is generally accepted that flexible working can be extremely beneficial to menopausal women. Having a policy which normalises flexible working for this demographic can help to remove any bias or misunderstanding which may exist among other segments of the workforce. By normalising practice and measures, organisations can ensure that women feel recognised and included.

What happens if employers don’t support menopausal employees sufficiently?

The biggest legal risk is ending up on the wrong side of an employment tribunal claim. As yet, there has not been a final tribunal decision which defines menopause as a disability, but we have had first-instance decisions which have said this – and we continue to see a significant increase in the number of legal complaints being made which relate to treatment experienced as a result of menopause. 

This means that, while discrimination claims based on menopause may therefore be defendable at this moment in time, other claims – including those relating to wider unfair treatment or subjection to disadvantage – may not be.

More than half (51 per cent) of the UK population is currently female, so this is an issue which is only going to gain momentum. In fact, recent research shows that employment tribunals concerning menopause have quadrupled since 2018.

There will be no backward trend; women are feeling more empowered than ever by society to raise concerns with their employers, meaning organisations that do not include HR with decisions relating to menopause-related matters will potentially experience problems.

Should menopause be classed a disability?

In addition, the 50-64 age group is the fastest-growing economically active group in the UK, due to factors including the increase in the state pension age for women, increased life expectancy and the impact of Covid. Of the 70 per cent of women in employment in the UK, almost 4.5 million fall into this age bracket, so it is in an employer’s interest to retain this demographic. 

Labour laws should always strive to adequately reflect societal and workplace issues, but they are far behind in the context of menopause, which is not something women have spoken about so vocally before. The law will need to catch up to prevent the less favourable treatment of women on grounds of menopause; however, I would object to a categorisation of disability. 

Menopause is not an impairment: it is a natural part of being a woman, and a reference to disability suggests inability, giving rise to the suggestion that something is wrong.  Menopause does not create inability and it is entirely natural. It is the final part of the reproductive cycle and is as nature intended. Food for thought perhaps, but if you categorise this part of the reproductive cycle as a disability, where do you draw the line? Puberty, periods, pregnancy: are these included?

Increased workplace protections for menopausal women would be welcome, but a label of disability will do more harm than good and set back dramatically the journey that women are on. 

Charlotte Geesin is head of employment law and business immigration at Howarths

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