Recent reports of an acute shortage of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) in the UK has highlighted the considerable difficulties that symptoms of the peri-menopause or menopause can create for women, both in their personal lives and at work.
Employers are increasingly aware of the need to engage with and offer support to menopausal staff, not least because women over 50 are the fastest growing section of the UK workforce. In recognition of the growing importance of this issue, more than 600 employers have recently signed the Menopause Workplace Pledge, committing to open, positive and respectful workplace dialogue and supportive measures. However, there remains a long way to go. Recent research, conducted with the assistance of the Fawcett Society, found that eight out of ten women say their employer has not shared information, trained staff or put in place a menopause absence policy.
This article explains why employers should care about the impact of the menopause at work and suggests proactive steps that can be taken to support employees.
What is the menopause?
The menopause is generally defined as the period when menstruation ceases following hormonal changes. The period of time over which this occurs can vary extensively, although it normally occurs between the ages of 45 and 55. The average age is 51 – often the point at which many women have reached senior roles, having invested many years in their careers to get to that point. They may also have increased caring responsibilities for teenage children and/or elderly parents.
The stage before menopause is known as perimenopause, which typically has similar symptoms but can begin much earlier than the menopause itself and can last many years.
Employers should also keep in mind that the menopause may affect a cross-section of the workforce, including non-binary and trans employees, as well as younger employees (who may have undergone certain medical treatment or could be experiencing early menopause).
Why should employers care?
Common symptoms associated with the perimenopause and menopause include irregular periods; fatigue; night sweats; hot flushes; brain fog and concentration problems; anxiety and depression; mood swings and panic attacks.
The nature of the symptoms and the length of time they may last (which will fluctuate from employee to employee) may have a significant detrimental impact on an employee’s ability to perform their role. Indeed, one in ten women who have worked during their menopause went as far as leaving their job due to their symptoms, according to the Fawcett Society research. These departures may well lead to a knock-on effect on diversity targets and the loss of accumulated industry knowledge and specific skill sets of senior employees, which could be hard to replace in a competitive labour market.
The Women & Equalities Committee has also reported survey results showing that symptoms have led more than a third of women to miss work. Whether or not an employee needs to take time off work, managers may also notice a change in a menopausal employee’s performance levels, engagement with their role, and/or interaction with colleagues, which will require sensitive investigation.
Key steps for employers to take now
Given the impact for employers, we recommend that they take the following key steps to turn awareness of workplace issues relating to the menopause into an action plan:
Initiate positive conversations
An important initial step for employers is to break the taboo that can often surround the topic of the menopause, either because of employee embarrassment, or a lack of understanding of what is involved and the impact it can have on employees. Providing the workforce with accurate information and an opportunity to openly discuss menopause issues will encourage colleagues to talk about their experiences and perhaps ask for help at an earlier stage.
One way to achieve this is to host guest speakers on menopause-related topics, with encouragement for the entire workforce to attend. Although it may be difficult to achieve, engagement from male employees (especially those in senior positions) can go a long way to making staff feel that their employer is offering genuine support.
Banish the banter
Menopause-related tribunal cases have steadily increased over the last few years, with 10 cases citing the menopause in the first six months of 2021 alone. These decisions demonstrate that one employee’s idea of “banter” may be viewed by another employee as sex, age, or in some cases disability discrimination (if symptoms are sufficiently debilitating that they meet the definition of a disability under the Equality Act 2010). Badly handled conversations or ill-conceived “jokes” about symptoms such as hot flushes can quickly overstep the mark into employee harassment.
It is important to remind employees that professionalism is always expected at work and that inappropriate behaviour relating to the menopause will not be tolerated. In this way, employers can also minimise the risk of successful employment law claims relating to the menopause.
Introduce a menopause policy
A workplace menopause policy presents an opportunity to explain the support and guidance on offer to employees, who their first point of contact should be to discuss any menopause-related issues, and the positive way in which they can expect things to be handled. However, simply producing a standalone policy, without taking further action to ensure that it is embedded in the organisation, is likely to be a pointless exercise.
Once a policy has been introduced, targeted training for managers and supervisors will further bolster its contents and the employer’s aim of supporting employees. Most managers will also benefit from guidance on how to have difficult conversations (not necessarily just in relation to the menopause) and the importance of handling things sensitively and with respect. This is a useful workplace skill with longer term benefits for those in leadership positions.
Risk assess & consider adjustments:
Employers who are aware that they have menopausal employees should consider conducting health and safety risk assessments, to identify any specific issues or risks that are likely to have a negative impact. As well as good employment practice, this is an important part of an employer’s broad duties to protect the health and safety of its employees. Consideration should be given to whether any adjustments can be made to the working environment to assist with symptoms. The solution may be practical and relatively simple; the provision of a desk fan, or moving a desk closer to a window, to assist with hot flushes, for example. Alternatively, a dedicated rest area so employees can take time out away from colleagues.
It may also be necessary to consider adjustments to an employee’s working pattern, to provide flexibility when symptoms are particularly difficult. The option to work from home and avoid crowded public transport may be particularly helpful (and reflect widespread hybrid working practices). If an employee’s symptoms amount to a disability under the Equality Act, then there is a legal obligation on the employer to make reasonable adjustments to alleviate any disadvantages caused.
Manage issues appropriately:
Issues associated with menopause symptoms are likely to engage and cross over with an employer’s pre-existing HR policies. For example, time off work will involve a sickness absence policy; a downturn in performance due to “brain fog” may impact on annual appraisals or engage a performance management policy. In all cases, care should be taken to ensure that internal policies are followed in the normal way, and that there is no difference in treatment of the menopausal employee (compared to a male employee with a medical condition, for example). An informal conversation may be a good starting point, to avoid a more prescriptive procedure if possible and hopefully get to the bottom of any underlying issues.
The need for employers to engage with the impact of the menopause on the workforce is likely to gain momentum. The outcome of a recent inquiry held by the UK Parliamentary Women and Equalities Select Committee is awaited and may lead to legislative change, among other developments. One of the issues under consideration is whether there is a need for the current law to change to provide specific menopause protection.
A firm which recognises the need for employee wellbeing initiatives and demonstrates a genuine understanding and commitment to building a supportive culture will be much more likely to see payback in the form of employee loyalty, improved retention rates and a boost to its reputation.
There is an additional financial incentive for employers to take early supportive action. It may avoid costly grievance and discrimination proceedings further down the line, with the employer in a stronger position to argue that it took reasonable steps to prevent any menopause-related discrimination or harassment from occurring.
It is certainly likely that the number of menopause-related tribunal cases will continue to grow. In the recent case of Rooney v Leicester City Council, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) reminded the employment tribunal of the need to seriously consider whether a claimant suffering severe menopause symptoms was protected from disability discrimination. The employment tribunal had initially struck out the claim, despite the claimant having provided a comprehensive list of menopause symptoms and details of how they adversely impacted her day-to-day activities. The EAT found it was wrong for the claim to have been struck out without adequate analysis.
Future employment tribunals should therefore be more open to such claims, if the evidence supports them. This further reminds employers that steps can be taken to limit exposure to the high cost, loss of management time, and uncapped employee compensation that successful discrimination claims entail.
If you have any questions about these issues in relation to your own organisation, please contact a member of the team or speak with your usual Fox Williams contact.
Need more information about the above people and legal expertise? Talk to one of our lawyers: +44 (0)20 7628 2000
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