Shall we talk about Menopause?
Essential conversations for the workplace
The menopause has long been a subject that “we just don’t talk about”. Signs are that this is starting to change, thanks to recent campaigns, including Davina McCall’s Channel 4 documentary, and it’s a good time to think about how businesses address the issue. Menopausal women are the fastest growing workforce demographic and the support provided to them at work might make all the difference to getting the best out of them and thereby minimising the risks of a range of potential claims.
Some useful statistics:
- 51% of the population will go through the menopause at some point.
- The average age for a woman to go through menopause is 51, although it can be much earlier
- Around 8 in 10 of menopausal women are in work
- 3 out of 4 women experience symptoms, 1 in 4 could experience serious symptoms.
The Faculty of Occupational Medicine estimates that almost half of women don’t seek medical advice and the majority of women don’t feel comfortable talking about menopause with their line managers.
ACAS’s 2019 guidance on the menopause at work, reminds us that around two million women aged over 50 have difficulties at work due to their menopause symptoms. It is also estimated that one in 20 women could go through an early menopause. The effects of the menopause can lead to staff feeling ill, losing confidence to do their job or feeling stressed, anxious or depressed. This is hardly surprising give than symptoms of menopause include hot flushes, insomnia, headaches, anxiety and inability to concentrate/focus.
Understanding that the menopause affects working women in a wide variety of ways is fundamental to providing the right support. A good menopause policy will offer a range of solutions: one size won’t fit all. Clearly, ensuring that any negative effects of menopause are neutralised as much as possible in the workplace is beneficial for productivity and an inclusive environment. From a legal risk perspective, employment tribunal claims are a threat for businesses which aren’t thinking about how the menopause may affect staff performance, attendance and conduct and a number of related cases have already been reported.
It’s important to note that experiencing the menopause is not a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010 as such. However, women who suffer detrimental treatment as a result of menopausal symptoms can potentially bring a number of discrimination claims, including sex, age and disability discrimination, depending on the facts. In the case of Merchant v BT Plc (2012), Ms Merchant was dismissed for poor performance and brought successful claims for unfair dismissal and direct sex discrimination. The Tribunal found that she had been discriminated against on the grounds of gender as her employer failed to deal with her menopause symptoms in the way which it would have dealt with other medical conditions. Ms Merchant’s manager had failed to take into account her specific menopause symptoms, despite a GP’s letter explaining the potential impact of these symptoms on her ability to concentrate. His decision to ignore the GP’s evidence appears to have been based on what he believed about menopause symptoms experienced by his wife and a colleague, unaware that the experience of menopause is not uniform and can affect every woman differently.
In Davies v Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service (2018), court officer Ms Davies experienced menopausal symptoms which left her feeling ‘fuzzy’ and emotional, and lacking concentration. She was disciplined when she could not remember whether she had put her soluble medication into a water jug from which she was drinking in a court room; two men subsequently drank from the contents of the jug. The disciplinary process concluded that she had lied, and she was consequently dismissed. However, when considering her case the employment tribunal found that Ms Davies met the definition of disabled due to her menopausal symptoms and it upheld her claims for disability discrimination and unfair dismissal.
Other potential discrimination claims which could arise from mis-management of menopause symptoms include age discrimination, failure to make reasonable adjustments and indirect discrimination (both age and sex).
The benefits of good management of the menopause in the workplace extend beyond prevention of employment claims. With such large numbers of the workforce affected, and frequently the senior women in the business, progressive policies are compelling when they enhance employee engagement and performance, reduce absence and avoid unnecessary recruitment costs.
Many organisations will already have relevant support in place and it may be that joining the dots between existing policies and good practices will form the essentials to make the workplace work for menopausal women.
The ACAS guidance provides the following tips for employers on ways to manage menopause at work:
- create and implement a menopause policy
- provide awareness training for managers to deal with any concerns in a sensitive way
- create an open and trusted culture within the team
- make changes where possible, such as adjustments to working hours, or hybrid working
- signpost the range of support services and advice available
- encourage employees to engage with their GPs, or offer specialist support from occupational health
- implement low-cost environmental changes, such as providing desk fans to deal with hot flushes (whilst remembering that not every woman will experience them!)
Alongside any menopause policy, consideration should be given to how the menopause may need to be dealt with under other policies, such as absence management, performance management and flexible working. The above cases demonstrate the importance of taking menopause seriously, treating it as you would any other medical condition, and not making assumptions. Line managers need a good level of knowledge and to be able to engage in supportive conversation. Greater awareness generally and a culture in which women feel able to discuss openly their experience of the menopause will ensure that menopausal women are given appropriate support in a fully inclusive environment, thus reducing risk across the board.