Menopausal symptoms have long been neglected by employers as a serious workplace issue, though it is important for both employers and employees that the effects of the menopause are effectively managed at work. If left unaddressed, it can lead to wide-ranging practical and legal consequences, including productivity issues, staff absences (sick leave), an impact on the mental/physical wellbeing of affected employees, grievance complaints, resignations and in a worst-case scenario, litigation.
The menopause has often been stigmatised as a “taboo” topic in the workplace, which could leave menopausal employees feeling both unsupported and unable to be open and transparent about their symptoms. This could mean that employers are unable to offer proper support or make reasonable adjustments (if applicable) to affected employees.
In some workplaces, the menopause forms the subject of office banter and comments which potentially perpetuate offensive and discriminatory age/gender/disability-based stereotypes and form part of a potentially problematic wider workplace culture overall. It is therefore key that employers not only grapple with the ‘know-how’ needed to properly support affected employees, but also have a proper awareness of the menopause, its symptoms, and the way in which those symptoms can potentially effect employees’ physical and mental health. Employers can then look to effectively implement measures to ensure that its wider workforce also has an awareness of menopausal symptoms and training, and policies are in place.
Women over 50, and those more likely to be affected by the menopause or menopausal symptoms, are the fastest growing part of the UK’s workforce. An increasing number of claims have been brought to the Employment Tribunal in recent years, with menopause or menopausal symptoms being cited by aggrieved employees as the reason for their employer’s discriminatory treatment. It is therefore increasingly important for employers to be aware of the potential impact of the menopause on staff, and for employees to be aware of their rights.
The Government is currently undertaking an inquiry to determine whether the existing equality legislation should be amended to expressly protect employees who are going through the menopause. Currently, the equality legislation in the UK does not specifically protect those going through menopause, though they can still bring claims under other legal grounds such as age discrimination, sex discrimination and/or disability discrimination.
Our guide below aims to provide employers and employees with a starting level understanding of the menopause and how it affects employees, the potential legal claims which workplace behaviours could give rise to in respect of the menopause, and an outline of basic measures employers should consider implementing to ensure best practice and circumvent the risk of claims.
What are menopausal symptoms and why are they important?
The menopause is a natural part of aging which affects most women between the ages of 45 to 55. Importantly, trans people, intersex people and women who are below the age of 45 can also be affected by menopausal symptoms, and in some cases the symptoms can start earlier, or last a lot longer than the age of 55. It is important for employers to ensure that internal references to employees who could potentially be affected by menopause or menopausal symptoms are not restricted to just women over a certain age but encompass other employees who could still be affected but may not identify as women and those going through early menopause.
The symptoms of menopause can be both physical and mental, and may cause a great deal of stress to employees who are experiencing them. The symptoms can vary in severity and can have a significant impact on a person’s day-to-day activities and ability to perform as usual in the workplace, to the extent that it can amount to a disability in law. Menopausal symptoms can include:
- Hot/cold flushes;
- Night sweats;
- Mood changes;
- Headaches and joint stiffness;
- Brain fog and confusion;
- Palpitations and weight gain;
- Dry skin;
- Aches and pains;
- Memory and psychological impairment;
- Lessened concentration and focus;
- Impairment issues;
- Excessive bleeding;
- Insomnia; and
- A weakened immune system (meaning it can take longer for affected employees to recover from illnesses).
The knock-on effect of these symptoms could mean heightened stress, anxiety, and a lack of confidence. It may be mentally challenging for menopausal employees to adjust to their symptoms and change in their ability to work in the same way as they did before they first experienced menopausal symptoms.
Without proper awareness and training in the workplace, employees may not feel comfortable being open and frank about the fact that they are suffering from menopausal symptoms. This could not only have a devastating impact on their careers, in that employers may not truly understand the reasoning behind any performance issues or sickness absences arising from the menopausal symptoms, but it could mean employers are unable to provide proper support to employees and in turn fail in their legal duty to make reasonable adjustments to help the employee. This could also result in employers unknowingly commencing performance management or sickness absence procedures because of an employee’s menopausal symptoms, which gives rise to a myriad of potential legal claims including discrimination. A lack of awareness amongst the workforce could also lead to potentially harmful and offensive office banter related to the menopause, which could give rise to a legal claim of harassment. We deal with this below.
Potential legal claims arising from menopausal symptoms in the workplace
If an employee is disadvantaged or treated less favourably because of their menopausal symptoms, and/or because of performance related issues or sickness absences arising from their menopausal symptoms, it could be discriminatory (provided the employee can show that their menopausal symptoms satisfy the legal definition of disability or that their treatment is linked to their age or gender).
Employers could also fall foul of equality legislation in respect of harassment, if offensive workplace comments are made regarding menopausal symptoms, or if there is a failure to make reasonable workplace adjustments for menopausal employees. There may also be breaches of employer’s health and safety duties.
A failure to properly manage menopausal symptoms in the workplace could therefore give rise to potential legal claims for disability discrimination, sex discrimination, age discrimination (noting menopausal symptoms are more likely to affect women of a certain age) and/or unfair dismissal (if an employee is dismissed as a result of their menopausal symptoms and/or resigns because of a lack of support for their menopausal symptoms in the workplace, for example).
Top tips for best practice
Raising employer awareness of menopause may not by itself be sufficient to address menopause-related issues in the workplace. Research indicates that women have historically been reluctant to discuss the menopause with their employers. Therefore, as well as ensuring that managers and staff are trained in dealing with menopause-related issues, it is necessary to ensure that staff feel that they are able to discuss such issues openly with their employers and that they understand that such conversations will be handled sensitively and confidentially.
Supporting affected employees, breaking down the barriers in respect of the menopause and menopausal symptoms, being aware of early menopause, and creating a positive and open working environment for affected employees, can prevent affected employees from losing confidence in their skills, needing to take sickness leave, suffering with stress and anxiety, and potentially complaining and leaving their role.
It is important for employers to ensure measures are in place to support and improve the menopausal experience for employees and foster a culture of respect for menopausal symptoms. Our top tips for best practice include:
- Put in place a menopause policy- ACAS now advise that employers have a policy. It wouldset out how staff can raise issues relating to the menopause and how these issues will be handled when raised. Such a policy would demonstrate the employer’s commitment to constructive and open conversations about the impact of the menopause on staff and indicate the type of support that may be available to assist with any issues.
- Review existing policies and frameworks – Do you need to consider amending your flexible working/performance management policies to highlight the menopause, raise awareness of the challenges it can cause and help menopausal employees thrive in the workplace? You should consider the impact on sickness absence policies and processes and data protection, as information about an employee’s health will amount to special category data and will therefore need to be processed in accordance with the employer’s data protection policy. Risk assessments should be updated too.
- Break the stigma – it is important for employers to both understand the menopause and raise awareness of the same amongst the workforce. We would advise employers to stray from generalising and/or making assumptions, in respect of all women wanting to discuss the menopause or it being an uncomfortable topic for men to discuss. We suggest employers have designated materials or information packs specifically targeted to line managers. Is there a way you can foster a culture of respect for the menopause or menopausal symptoms to normalise this as a topic of conversation in the workplace? How best can you promote awareness to the workforce?
- Consider making reasonable adjustments in the workplace – these will vary from employee to employee, as the adjustments needed will depend on the severity of the symptoms. Small adjustments, such as a change to an affected employee’s working pattern, can make the world of difference. Have you carried out a risk assessment to ensure that the workplace conditions do not potentially exacerbate any menopausal symptoms? Have you trained your managers to approach and discuss reasonable adjustments with employees? Generally, the affected employee is best placed to know what they need by way of any adjustments and the workplace should encourage them to be open about this with their line manager, perhaps by the instigation of a procedure. Have you considered how adjustments can be implemented in a way which is comfortable to the affected employee and allows them to thrive in the workplace? – some employees may feel awkward about needing a reasonable adjustment or being treated differently to their colleagues. It is important to recognise this.
Examples of reasonable adjustments could include:
- Providing employees with access to cold water;
- Ensuring any uniforms are appropriate or adjusted;
- Providing desk fans and the use of quiet rooms;
- Making allowances in respect of PPE;
- Training managers on menopausal symptoms;
- Appointing a designated officer to liaise with affected employees regarding any menopause related queries; and
- Allowing time off for employees to attend medical appointments.
As a point of practice, employers could have a mechanism in place to check up on employees after time off in a non-invasive and conducive way, depending on what the particular employee is comfortable with, to ensure that employees feel supported.
- Provide training – not only to line managers, but also the senior leadership team and/or board. Education is key and the focus on training for line managers should be on how to manage attendance and absences in their team, in light of menopausal symptoms, as well as performance issues relative to the same. Showing that support and training is being provided at all levels could form a key part of a business strategy, future proofing the business and retaining female talent.
Do you need further support?
It is clearly important for employers to implement mechanisms and channels to fully support employees experiencing menopause, and to educate employees who may not.
If you need further advice or support in respect of drafting a menopause policy, the need to make reasonable adjustments, amending your existing policies and procedures to account for menopausal symptoms, dealing with an employee who is suffering from menopausal symptoms or are an employee facing issues at work, do not hesitate to contact our experienced employment team.
All information is true as at the date of preparing this article. Please always consult the latest legislation or government guidance for accurate information.