In the UK, more than 80% of women aged 45-55 are in employment. For most women, perimenopause (the time leading up to the menopause when oestrogen levels start to change and menopause symptoms begin) starts in their early 40s. This stage then ends “officially” with the menopause a year after a woman’s periods end. The average age women hit menopause in the UK is 51 – that’s a sizable percentage of any workforce managing a huge range of symptoms while also working. That’s also not taking into consideration those who enter menopause earlier due to medical reasons (including hysterectomy and gender reassignment surgery).
A brighter spotlight has been shone on menopause lately, with high profile voices such as Davina McCall and Sarah Lancashire speaking out on the topic to help reduce stigma. However, despite efforts to break down barriers and make it something to discuss rather than brush under the carpet, 29% of women reported a loss of confidence at work when experiencing both peri- and menopause symptoms. 10% of women even quit work due to symptoms. In sectors that are female dominated, that’s a huge proportion of the workforce that many employers cannot afford to lose.
The Law and Menopause: Is it helping?
More women are citing menopause as a reason for claims of discrimination/unfair dismissal etc at tribunal. The number of cases which did so increased by 44% in 2021. This could be a sign that more women feel able to name the issue thanks to better publicity on menopause. However, it still demonstrates that more work is needed to help women who are suffering with symptoms feel they can remain in work while also being understood and encouraged.
Menopause is not a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010. That said, age, sex and disability are and so it is unlawful for employers to discriminate on those grounds whether that be direct or indirect discrimination, harassment, or victimisation. Over the last couple of years, women have brought successful claims for sex and age discrimination following the unacceptable responses of their employers to their menopause symptoms and its impact on their work. In one notable case, an employer told a claimant to “calm down, don’t let the hormones get out of control”.
In disability related claims, women must demonstrate that their symptoms meet the definition of a disability under the Equality Act 2010. It must be a “physical or mental impairment and the impairment must have a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities”. In one such case, a tribunal refused to accept that an employee’s symptoms including hot flushes, sweating, palpitations, anxiety, night sweats and fatigue (amongst others) had “no more than minor or trivial effect” on her life. The decision was overturned by Employment Appeal Tribunal; her disability discrimination claim was upheld.
More recently in August 2023, an ex-employee of Direct Line was awarded £64,645 in damages after her employer failed to make reasonable adjustments for her symptoms which met the definition of a disability. Case law is certainly reflecting a move towards recognising the need to protect women in the workplace from discrimination when experiencing menopause. However, many feel women should not have to jump through the hoops of demonstrating a disability and want the Government to do more.
The Government and Menopause: what’s their role?
The House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee published their report in July 2022 following a 12-month inquiry. Its purpose was to examine the extent of discrimination faced by menopausal women in the workplace. The report, amongst other things, called for consultation on making menopause a protected characteristic and recommended a Menopause Ambassador be appointed and guidance published by the HSE and EHRC for employers.
The Government did not take up the call to consult on making menopause a protected characteristic but did agree that more should be done in the workplace to protect and help women with menopause symptoms. A Woman’s Health Ambassador was appointed to sit on the UK Menopause Taskforce (set up in 2021) and the group have confirmed that employment will be a priority. The Labour party has committed to bringing in more mandatory measures; if they get into power after the next election, all employers with 250 or more employees will have to have an action plan to demonstrate how they are supporting women going through menopause in their workplace.
The law can provide the framework when it all goes wrong. The present Government has made it clear they are not willing to step into the space and force a culture shift so the responsibility to create a menopause inclusive workplace inevitably rests with employers.
What can employers do?
Inclusivity is about ensuring staff feel included and able to thrive and succeed. Menopause inclusivity is no different; how do you ensure that women with menopause symptoms, whether those be mild and few or serious and many, feel they are valued at work and understood, not humiliated or ignored?
Understanding is key
Implementing training across the entire workplace is a positive step toward helping everyone start from the same point of education. Training allows employers to get everyone on the same page when it comes to understanding basics like what the menopause is, common symptoms, and how to help a colleague who might be struggling. Further training for managers could include sensitivity and empathy training in handling conversations with employees who may be struggling. Partnering with organisations like Henpicked: The Menopause Friendly Association, or Bloody Good Employers who can provide external training and additional resources may be beneficial for companies without an in-house HR team, or those who want to pursue the Menopause Friendly Accreditation.
Adding a menopause workplace policy is part of this picture. It sets out expectations, helping employees understand how to broach conversations with management. Part of this understanding is recognising that for some employees such openness will be a relief and something they welcome and engage with. For others, they may not wish to engage at all and find questions and assumptions an intrusion. This is a key element to remember in any effective training and information programme.
Understanding is crucial but it’s the practical steps which will make the difference for many women. Given the many and varied symptoms of menopause, there is a similar plethora of adjustments that could be made. Some examples might include:
- Access to temperature controls – an air conditioned office, desk fans, or a window.
- A quiet and/or darkened space to be used to help manage symptoms in private.
- Provision of menstrual products and appropriate hygiene facilities (i.e. enclosed bathroom stalls with sink and toilet, or access to showers and changing areas).
- Change in role or responsibilities to allow them to better manage their symptoms (i.e a switch away from a customer facing role, or reduction in physical duties).
- Allowance of flexible working hours to manage symptoms at home (either a working from home policy or ability to leave early/start late to help manage).
Such is the nature of menopause symptoms different employees are going to need different adjustments. Having an inclusive environment which demonstrates an organisation’s willingness to do what it can to alleviate stress and symptoms will make conversations that much easier.
Why invest in menopause support?
Menopausal women are the fastest growing demographic in the UK workplace. To lose this huge chunk of the workforce simply through lack of support or adjustments is to throw away the many years of experience these employees can offer. For sectors that are female dominated such as health and social care and education retaining this workforce for as long as possible is essential, especially where recruitment and training of new staff remains a challenge.
For employers who provide support and menopause friendly workplaces, employees that directly benefit will be happier and more productive. They are more likely to remain with an employer that supports them through the menopause, thus reducing the cost of hiring or training new staff to replace them. Candidates in the job market are also looking to see how organisations address inclusivity and making decisions based on those findings. An organisation which recognises the value of its employees no matter their age, stage of life, gender or disability is an attractive one in the marketplace.