The menopause is a health condition which most women will experience at some point, usually between the ages of 45 to 55. Like any health issue, it needs to be handled sensitively in the workplace.
Employers need to be alert to the HR and legal implications of menopause transition, as failure to take a sympathetic and responsible approach could see an employer facing claims of discrimination in regard to sex, age or disability.
The range and severity of symptoms experienced by each woman varies greatly. These include hot flushes, headaches, heavy periods, sleep disturbance, poor memory, depression, anxiety and irritability. Symptoms can start years before menopause and can last several years, and for some the effects can be severely debilitating.
According to Government Equalities Office research, Menopause Transition: Effects on Women’s Economic Participation, working women experienced gendered ageism at work and an unsympathetic culture, as well as feeling embarrassed by their symptoms.
What are the legal risks for employers?
Managers who are ill-equipped to deal with these issues may find themselves defending their actions in an employment tribunal claim. There have already been a number of successful employment tribunal claims relating to menopause symptoms; the first being a claim for sex discrimination and unfair dismissal following a dismissal of an employee on the grounds of poor performance. The tribunal found that the employee’s manager had failed to take menopause seriously as an underlying health condition, which might affect the employee’s ability to do her job. The tribunal considered that the employer would have treated a man with the same symptoms differently.
The other claims relate to disability discrimination. These are important reminders that an employment tribunal can find that not just severe, but also ‘typical’, menopause symptoms can amount to a disability. Disabled employees are protected under the Equality Act 2010 and employers have to make reasonable adjustments at work for them.
As part of their responsibilities for their employees’ health and safety, employers should carry out risk assessments. These assessments and any subsequent action should take into account menopause transition symptoms. The Women and Equalities Select Committee carryied out an enquiry into menopause in the workplace in 2021. The inquiry is examined existing legislation, including whether menopause should be added to the Equality Act 2010 as a protected characteristic. However, last year the government responded deciding not to introduce menopause as a new protected characteristic.
Guidance for employers
Acas guidance on Menopause at work suggests ways in which employers can support women with menopause transition symptoms. Employers are encouraged to take any steps sensitively and to take advice where menopause may be a factor in workplace issues.
Employer interventions include:
- Introducing a menopause policy explaining the support offered
- Training line managers to increase their confidence to discuss menopause with employees
- Equalities training to increase awareness of menopause transition, with the objective that greater understanding will lead to a cultural shift
- Allowing frequent breaks to access toilets
- Improving ventilation and providing desk fans
- Flexible working
- Adjustments to hours and allowing employees to take the day off or to swap shifts on a bad day
- Changing uniforms from synthetic to natural fibres.