Menopause: A welcome change in attitude

By Ged Henderson

28 May 2024

Menopause

The warning from the UK’s equality watchdog could not have been clearer. It declared that menopause symptoms can be considered a disability and employers faced being sued if they did not make ‘reasonable’ adjustments.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) made its pronouncement in February. It brought the issue of menopause in the workplace into sharp focus, starting a debate over the use of the word ‘disability’ and sparking a flurry of media headlines.

It came as research revealed that one in ten women working during the menopause had left their jobs because of symptoms.

Two thirds of working women between the ages of 40 and 60 with experience of menopausal symptoms also reported they had a mostly negative impact on them at work.

However, very few workers request workplace adjustments during this time, often citing concerns about potential reactions.

Against that backdrop, the new EHRC guidance set out employer’s legal obligations under the Equality Act 2010.

It said it was essential that employers knew how to support workers experiencing menopause symptoms, not only to meet their legal obligations but also to ensure women were able to continue to contribute to the workplace.

The guidance said that if menopause symptoms have a long term and substantial impact on a woman’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities, they may be considered a disability.

Under the 2010 act, an employer will be under a legal obligation to make reasonable adjustments and to not discriminate against the worker.

Additionally, workers experiencing menopause symptoms may be protected from less favourable treatment related to their menopause symptoms on the grounds of age and sex.

Baroness Kishwer Falkner, who chairs the EHRC, says: “As Britain’s equality watchdog, we are concerned both by how many women report being forced out of a role due to their menopause-related symptoms and how many don’t feel safe enough to request the workplace adjustments.

“An employer understanding their legal duties is the foundation of equality in the workplace. But it is clear that many may not fully understand their responsibility to protect their staff going through the menopause.”

Sally Leech is the Lancashire-based training director of Henpicked: Menopause In The Workplace. She says that since the guidance was published it has seen a rise in enquiries from organisations worried they may unwittingly breach the law and face an employment tribunal.

Sally says: “Recent case law points to the need to educate managers and provide them with the necessary skills and guidance. Very often managers are making errors because they haven’t been properly trained.

“We can quickly reassure organisations that by training and educating their staff, they are highly unlikely to find themselves in this situation.”

She adds: “Under the Equality Act 2010, menopause discrimination could fall into the protected characteristics of sex, age, disability and gender reassignment, or a combination of these.

“In order to fully understand this, however, employers must recognise menopause symptoms and know how to support or signpost colleagues appropriately.

“This is where training and education for all staff is key, so that both employers are employees know what to look out for and which appropriate adjustments or actions can help.

“It is important employers recognise there is no ‘one size fits all’ off-the-shelf menopause policy: we work with organisations to support them in creating a policy or guidance that suits their business and culture.

“For example, our SME clients have very different needs to our larger corporate clients and the financial services sector needs a different approach than a healthcare, charity or engineering.

“Small reasonable adjustments can make a big difference such as being aware of temperature control, allowing people to sit near good ventilation and relaxing the dress code.

“Offering flexible hours and working from home can help people work around their symptoms while having free period products, freshen-up toiletries and access to fresh cold water are nice, simple touches.”

Finally, providing regular breaks in meetings and quiet spaces where people can take a moment will make the working day much more manageable.

“Introducing menopause support can not only help to protect you from a legal standpoint, it will emphasise your focus on colleagues’ wellbeing which is great for recruitment and retention.”

Sally Blades is HR director at Burnley based VEKA, a leading supplier of uPVC profile in the UK, designing and manufacturing systems which are used to fabricate windows, doors and conservatories.

Figures show that 12 per cent of the 450-strong workforce are women, though when it comes to the senior leadership team that rises to 25 per cent.

Sally and her HR team are actively working with health experts to further develop menopause support within the organisation.

With the research showing one in ten women who have worked during the menopause have left their jobs because of the symptoms they have experienced, Sally believes the work VEKA is undertaking can help in its staff retention.

She says: “It is an area that isn’t very well understood, but it is really important for the business that we have the right support for women when it comes to the menopause and we need to invest in it.

“Part of our approach is giving everyone in the organisation the information they need so they are best equipped to recognise the signs of menopause, manage any symptoms that may be affecting work and to give the support that is needed.

“As well as that important education piece, it is also about starting open conversations in the workplace and ensuring people know where they can go to get that support that they require.”

Victoria Mitchell, head of employment law and HR at Farleys solicitors, advises employers to take a proactive and innovative approach to avoid negative consequences.

That approach includes surveying the workplace to gain a better understanding of employees needs and the appointment of ‘menopause advocates’ that can raise awareness and communicate information regarding the needs of employees experiencing menopause.

She adds: “The number of menopausal women in the workplace is increasing and such individuals make up a large proportion of the workforce in the UK.

“Therefore, employers that fail to take proactive action in assisting and supporting employees in dealing with menopausal related symptoms risk negative economic and reputational effects on their organisations and make themselves vulnerable to associated claims by employees.”

Enjoyed this? Read more from Ged Henderson

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