Menopause might appear a tricky subject in the workplace, and it can be tempting to ignore it entirely. However, taking the time to understand its potential impact on a workforce can have benefits for the employer and the employee.
Facilitating positive change to improve the working environment for employees experiencing menopause not only improves the employer/employee relationship and the employee’s working environment, but it is also likely to reduce the amount of leave employees take when dealing with their symptoms.
ACAS fittingly published guidance on managing menopause in the workplace on World Menopause Day (18 October) which is incredibly useful for employers and can be viewed here.
What is menopause?
The menopause occurs when a woman stops having periods. It is a natural part of ageing which typically occurs between 45 and 55 years of age, as a woman’s oestrogen levels reduce. The average age for a woman in the UK to reach the menopause is 51. However, around 1 in 100 women experience menopause before they reach 40 years of age.
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The menopause can combine physical and mental symptoms and include:
- hot flushes and/or excessive sweating
- feeling tired and/or lacking energy
- unpredictable mood swings
- feeling anxious and/or suffering from panic attacks
- difficulty sleeping and/or night sweats
- struggling to remember things, concentrate and focus
- a lowered immune system, where individuals take longer to recover from illness.
Employees may, justifiably, find this a sensitive issue to discuss and so the greater the awareness of these physical and mental symptoms, the more comfortable an employee may feel in discussing this personal issue.
If employers fail to manage menopause in the workplace effectively, the most likely risks are loss of workplace productivity, as unsupported employees underperform and take higher levels of sickness absence. Employers may even find themselves losing previously loyal and highly experienced staff.
However, they also run the risk of falling foul of potential discrimination claims. While the risk of a gender and/or age based discrimination claim is reasonably apparent to any astute employer, it’s worth flagging that an employee suffering with severe symptoms, possibly physical and/or mental, which have a substantial and long-term adverse effect on the employee’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities, may be defined as disabled according to the Equality Act 2010.
Moreover, employers have a legal duty to minimise or remove workplace health and safety risks for workers. This duty arguably extends to ensuring menopausal symptoms are not made worse by the workplace environment and practices, and making reasonable adjustments to help a worker manage their symptoms when working.
Employers should take a proactive approach to managing menopause in the workplace, in order to safeguard against prospective claims and, importantly, to nurture a welcoming and inclusive workplace culture.
There is increasing recognition that the needs of an employee will vary across their working life, with some periods where the employee is sailing along, and others where they need more support. Looking out for those times in an employee’s career (whether that is extra training early on or for upskilling, support during a period with young children or caring responsibilities, periods of health challenges or winding down to retirement) can all help build team morale and encourage high retention rates.
Practical tips include:
- implementing reasonable adjustments, where possible, to improve the working environment for relevant employees. This could include providing a desk fan, allowing an employee to move desks (e.g. to be near a window or away from a radiator) and, if feasible, permitting flexible working hours
- when performance, conduct and/or absence issues are brought to light (particularly with a long-serving employee who has not previously given the employer cause for concern), carefully consider the full facts and, depending on the reason cited for the absence (e.g. sickness), query with the employee the reason for their absence in a return to work interview. This affords the employee the opportunity to confide in their line manager. It is important to consider possible factors or reasons for an employee’s absence or issues with performance or conduct, investigating them as necessary and giving the employee the opportunity to present their case, rather than ploughing ahead with a formal disciplinary, performance or capability process
consider putting in place a wide-ranging wellbeing policy. Menopause is only one of a host of personal challenges employees can experience in the workplace, from neurodiversity to anxiety to burnout. A wellbeing policy can signpost sources of support and resources that can be useful to a wide range of employees. More and more employers are embracing wider wellbeing initiatives, including offering access to confidential external helplines.
- In some workplaces, it may even be helpful to consider adding a menopause policy to a staff handbook which encourages employees to confide in their line manager if they are experiencing menopause symptoms that are affecting their workplace performance and explains what sort of changes or reasonable adjustments the company could look to put in place
- ensuring that there is a female manager or colleague in HR to whom employees experiencing menopause symptoms can confidentially speak
- organising training on menopause for employees in supervisory or managerial roles and, in particular, those in HR
- generally seeking to foster an inclusive, welcoming environment, ensuring that those in positions of leadership are seen and heard to be understanding of their colleagues suffering from menopause symptoms and, importantly, are not seen or heard making jokes or derogatory comments about this issue.