After a menopause initiative grabbed the coveted ‘winner of winners’ prize at the Personnel Today awards, Sophie Georgiou and Sarah Rushton look at what an effective workplace menopause policy could include, alongside some of the legal considerations.
DIY retailer Wickes was recently declared overall winner at 2021’s Personnel Today Awards for “radically shifting the gender balance” thanks to a menopause and fertility app from Peppy. If your organisation is considering how it can better support employees through this life stage, what can you do to help?
What is the menopause?
From a technical perspective, menopause refers to a single day in a woman’s life, following 12 complete months in which she has not menstruated.
In the UK, the average age for a woman to reach her menopause is 51, however, menopausal symptoms can start as early as 10 years before. There are more than 30 recognised symptoms, which range from hot flushes and night sweats, through to anxiety, low mood, and weight gain. Women also experience postmenopausal symptoms.
Recent years have seen more employed women aged 50 and above. According to Business in the Community (BITC), the number of women aged 50-64 in the workforce is 4.5 million.
ITV news recently revealed that “a quarter of the women we asked said they’d considered leaving work because of their menopause: and half said the symptoms had made their work life worse”. In turn, a survey by Bupa and CIPD in 2019 found that the menopause negatively affected three in five women at work, and resulted in 900,000 leaving their jobs.
This is a real problem for employers, since women in this age group are often at the height of their careers.
The House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee’s recent inquiry on menopause in the workplace highlighted that such women’s departure will impact productivity, “lessen diversity at executive levels”, “contribute to the gender pay gap” and add to pensions disparity.
What can an employer do?
Employers can implement a menopause policy, with the following key features:
- information about the menopause
- encouragement to come forward and have open and honest conversations about menopause related issues
- flagging support which may be available, and
- health and safety considerations.
Raising awareness amongst all staff, combined with training for managers, can help staff feel supported, and assist in preventing costly tribunal claims.
While the menopause is not in itself a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010, related unfavourable treatment could amount to age, sex, or disability discrimination, and inappropriate comments could constitute harassment.
The potential consequences of a manager’s ignorance were highlighted in Ms C Merchant v British Telecommunications Plc. Ms Merchant was dismissed for poor performance after 24 years of service, having supplied a manager with a letter from her GP explaining that “she is going through the menopause which can affect her level of concentration at times”.
Ms Merchant’s manager failed to refer her for a medical investigation, because he “determined that because his wife [and HR advisor] had gone through the menopause…he knew enough”. This failure, as well as the decision to dismiss without such investigation, amounted to sex discrimination. Ms Merchant also succeeded in her unfair dismissal claim.
Raising awareness amongst all staff, combined with training for managers, can help staff feel supported, and assist in preventing costly tribunal claims.”
As for inappropriate remarks, in A v Bonmarche Limited (in administration), A endured a change of attitude by the store manager when she started going through the menopause. Her treatment included being demeaned and humiliated in front of other staff, called a “dinosaur” in front of customers, and facing unreasonable criticism. She brought successful claims of harassment and discrimination relating to age and sex.
In A Kownacka v Textbook Teachers Ltd, statements by Ms Kownacka’s managing director that it was not a big deal that her cancer treatment would force her into the menopause at the age of 37, resulting in her no longer being able to conceive children, lead to a successful tribunal claim for harassment related to disability.
Menopausal symptoms are capable of amounting to a disability. For example, in Miss J Donnachie v Telent Technology Services Ltd, Miss Donnachie was found to be “disabled by reason of menopause”. Her menopausal symptoms included hot flushes, disturbed sleep, fatigue, memory and concentration problems and anxiety. This means that an employer may have a duty to make reasonable adjustments in relation to a menopausal employee.
A menopause policy can guide employees on what to do if they think they would benefit from adjustments or additional support. Encouraging employees to come forward in these circumstances will help employers support staff in realising their potential, while assisting employers in meeting their employment law duties.
Even if an employee’s menopause does not amount to a disability, an employer is also required to provide safe working conditions under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, including for menopausal women.
Risk assessments carried out in accordance with the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 should consider the needs of menopausal staff and ensure that their symptoms are not worsened by their working environment.
It’s important to note that the menopause does not just affect women. Both trans and intersex people can experience the menopause, so employers should be sensitive to this, and avoid making assumptions.
Employers should adopt a flexible approach in implementing a menopause policy, and consider making allowances where necessary. Given the range of menopausal symptoms, staff’s experiences will vary.
Lastly, the menopause is relevant to more than just a menopause policy. Employers should take care to adhere to other appropriate policies where relevant.