Why UK workers need menopause protection, and why responsible firms should take menopause far more seriously
The government has missed an opportunity to afford legal protections to menopausal women in the workplace. But responsible employers should and will consider the needs of menopausal women regardless of legislation, says Hilary Messer of law firm Gardner Leader.
Women make up 51 per cent of the population. Every woman goes through menopause. In 2020 the ONS reported 72.3 per cent of menopausal women were at work. In the UK, one-in-three women in the workplace are peri or post-menopausal.
These are mostly women within a certain age range, near or at the peak of their careers. For huge numbers, their experience and expertise is critical to the businesses for whom they work.
But 90 per cent of these women will suffer with troublesome menopausal symptoms: difficulty sleeping and profuse sweating, feeling tired and lacking in energy, mood swings and depression, anxiety and panic attacks, hot flashes or feeling really cold, forgetfulness and trouble concentrating, taking longer to recover from illness.
Menopausal women have hitherto kept quiet about these symptoms, both inside and outside the workplace. Menopause has for too long been taboo. Whether borne of ignorance or fear, women have suffered in silence and soldiered on. Some have their symptoms misdiagnosed as a mental health condition, heightening the taboo.
These symptoms, the natural consequence of hormone depletion, impact a menopausal woman’s ability to do her job. How could they not? Lasting for years, some may alleviate symptoms with HRT but that is not an option for every menopausal woman. Some women have so little information or misinformation they never seek help of any kind.
Without help and support in the workplace, menopausal women are likely to call in sick, lose confidence in their own ability to do their job, suffer from anxiety and depression and finally they leave the workplace completely. That is bad for them, bad for business and bad for the economy.
Whether such menopausal women leave of their own accord is another matter. Within the workplace, subject to capability procedures or disciplinary hearings for performance or sickness, they may be dismissed. Some are unable to challenge the process because of the very impact of the menopause. Some may sue.
Meantime the employer engages in time-consuming non-profitable processes leading to the loss of a previously valued worker and a resultant job vacancy. Some defend and lose costly legal proceedings. Other staff are impacted, even if only by the unease such dismissal generates. Tragically, some women suffer so badly they take their own lives.
There is another way. The Government’s recent rejection of key recommendations by the Women and Equalities Committee Report on Menopause in the Workplace was disappointing. That report states: “Menopause is a workplace issue. There is a legal, economic, and social imperative to address the needs of menopausal women.”
One of 12 recommendations was there be a model menopause policy to assist employers, covering how to request reasonable adjustments and other support, advice on flexible working, sick leave for menopausal symptoms and provision for education, training and building a supportive culture.
Another recommendation was for a pilot within a large public sector employer to develop and trial a menopause leave policy.
Another recommendation was section 14 of the Equality Act 2010 be commenced to make menopause a protected characteristic, affording menopausal women legislative protection from discrimination.
Currently a woman must rely on age or sex or disability discrimination clauses in the Equality Act and or breach of The Health & Safety At Work Act 1974 for redress.
The law does not serve or protect menopausal women. The Report recommendations were intended to ensure fewer women need legal redress. Whilst the 3 key recommendations above were rejected by Government, responsible firms must see the business value in implementing their own menopause policies. They may choose to offer menopause leave, the alternate to forcing women to take sick leave when they are not sick – just menopausal.
The benefits of any robust menopause policy are obvious to any business: reducing the number of sick days and absences, avoiding potential legal claims, creating an inclusive organisation and improving staff retention.
Menopause may only happen to women but it affects everyone. A robust policy should enable any staff member raising a peri or menopausal concern to have a conversation with the employer, be they a woman or a man.
Women may find such an intensely personal matter hard to raise and businesses should be aware LGBT+ people and young and ethnic minority women are amongst the groups for whom menopause carries a significant social and cultural stigma.
Men work with, alongside, report to or manage women in the workplace, whom they could better support if they understood menopause.
A robust policy sets out how peri menopause and menopause affect everyone in the workplace, provides for support or changes in the workplace to suit the individual whilst setting out how the business complies with the legal framework as is.
Hilary Messer is a senior associate solicitor in litigation and dispute resolution at Gardner Leader LLP and the firm’s Menopause Champion.
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