Endometriosis: a hidden and misunderstood condition

By Brabners LLP

29 Mar 2022

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Endometriosis is not particularly well known or understood and remains without a cure.  Nevertheless, the charity Endometriosis UK reports that around 1.5 million women and those assigned female at birth are currently living with the condition. Statistics from the charity also alarmingly suggest that it takes an average of eight years for an individual suffering from endometriosis to receive a diagnosis.

Individuals will often present at their GP surgery, A&E or other medical centres with severe symptoms that go undiagnosed and/or misdiagnosed. This can cause further difficulties for employees who may not be able to identify the cause of their symptoms and struggle to explain this to their employers as a result.

It is therefore easy to see how these circumstances could cause difficulties for employers with employees who may be suffering from this condition and, so, a cautionary approach to those experiencing its symptoms may well be warranted.

What is Endometriosis?

Endometriosis is an often painful condition where tissue, similar to the lining of the womb, starts to grow in other places in the body such as the ovaries, fallopian tubes, bowel and lungs. The condition can affect those with female reproductive organs of any age. 

There is currently no cure for endometriosis. It is a long-term condition which can have significant impact on the individual’s life, both in the workplace and personally, given the severity of symptoms it can cause.

Symptoms of Endometriosis

The impact of endometriosis varies from person to person. Some women are affected badly whilst others may experience no symptoms. The primary symptoms of endometriosis can include:

Chronic pelvic pain. Severe period pain that stops a person carrying out their normal activities. Heavy bleeding. Nausea, difficulty passing urine and emptying bowels. Pain during or after sex. Fertility issues. Fatigue. Depression/anxiety. Stomach distention/pressure. Difficulty fulfilling work and social commitments. Suicidal thoughts.

Given that other organs in the body can also be affected, the condition can lead to further complications. For example, deep infiltrating endometriosis can require the removal of organs such as the fallopian tubes and part of the bowel.

Common misconceptions

Whilst there is no cure for endometriosis, there is a lot of misinformation available about the condition. Most commonly, it has been suggested that pregnancy and/or hysterectomy will alleviate the symptoms. Whilst there may be some benefits to these options, these are not cures and it is important to note that, as a condition with somewhat limited awareness and understanding, it is easy to rely upon inaccurate information.

Employers should, therefore, be extremely careful drawing their own conclusions and instead seek medical advice in order to understand the position of each individual.

What legal protections are afforded to employees suffering with endometriosis?

It is important to note that whilst endometriosis itself is not an automatic disability, this condition could certainly satisfy the definition of “disability” under the Equality Act 2010. As with many disabilities, the impact of the condition needs to be assessed on an individual basis; taking into account the impact it has on any given individual.

For the purposes of protection under the Equality Act 2010, a person is disabled if:

They have a physical or mental impairment The impairment has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. 

For an impairment to be deemed ‘long-term’ it must:

Have lasted for at least 12 months; Be likely to last for at least 12 months; or Be likely to last for the rest of the life of the person affected.

As mentioned, endometriosis is a long-term condition with no cure and symptoms typically last until menopause. In light of this, where symptoms are severe, endometriosis could easily meet the legal threshold to qualify as a disability for legal purposes.

Endometriosis and its effects are sometimes referred to as “women’s troubles” or "women’s problems”. This not only shows a lack of understanding of this chronic condition and the impact it can have on those who have it, but if this terminology is used in the workplace, it could potentially lead to claims for harassment related to sex under the Equality Act 2010.

Legal risks

Given the potential for endometriosis to be a disability, employers need to be alive to the risk of claims for discrimination; the ambit of which can be far reaching and include the duty to make reasonable adjustments.

In all cases where an employer has discriminated against an individual, the employee will be able to bring a claim and seek compensation in the employment tribunal. Awards for successful discrimination claims are potentially uncapped, which means that employers could be at risk of having to pay out large sums of money.

Matters such as this are extremely fact specific and must be considered on a case-by-case basis. Awareness of this condition and, more importantly, how Tribunals assess disability needs to be borne in mind by employers when employees present with health issues without a clear diagnosis.

Beyond legal protection?

In our next blog, we’ll be considering why employers should provide additional support to employees impacted by endometriosis and provide practical examples of the forms that additional support can take (including reasonable adjustments).

Contact us

If your organisation requires support and advice in relation to supporting staff affected by endometriosis, whether this is training, making reasonable adjustments in the workplace, policies or a specific employee matter, please get in touch with a member of our Employment Team who will be able to assist.

Brabners in Lancashire is located at Sceptre Court, Walton Summit. If you would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please give us a ring on 01772 823921, quote “LBV” and a member of our team will be happy to assist you.  

If you would like to receive more content like this, please head to our website where you can subscribe to receive regular updates of current articles and events.

This article contains a general overview of information only. It does not constitute, and should not be relied upon, as legal advice. You should consult a suitably qualified lawyer on any specific legal problem or matter.

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