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The taboo that is menopause in the workplace

  • Legal Development 18 October 2021 18 October 2021
  • UK & Europe

  • Health & Wellbeing

Recognising the effects of the menopause is a workplace culture issue which goes to the heart of an employer’s approach to diversity and inclusion. Failure to recognise the potential effects of the menopause also presents a litigation risk since the problems experienced by women suffering from the effects of menopause will be missed. Line managers may wrongly assume that associated problems are poor performance issues which can in turn lead to discrimination and unfair dismissal claims.

The taboo that is menopause in the workplace

Just over 50% of the UK population is female. With menopause (on average) occurring for women between the ages of 45 – 55, logic dictates that a significant portion of the working population will experience (or are currently experiencing) the menopause whilst working. In fact, it is estimated that 1 in 3 working women are either currently going through or have been through the menopause. Yet it is rarely discussed, if at all.

Against a current climate in which women aged between 50 – 64 are the fastest growing workforce demographic in the UK (67.5% of women aged between 50 – 64 are in employment, amounting to almost 4.5 million employees), it is now time for employers to finally be alive to this issue.

Why should employers be more aware of the menopause?

According to a recent CIPD survey, 59% of women experiencing menopausal symptoms said it had a negative impact on their work, with over half either having to take sick leave due to their symptoms or reduce their working hours.

This is hardly surprising given that 75% of women will experience symptoms, which can include fatigue, hot flushes, difficulty focusing or concentrating, anxiety, insomnia, palpitations, weight gain, problems with memory recall, mood changes, depression, irritability and loss of self-confidence. For 25% of women, these symptoms are severe.

Menopause can last from 4 – 8 years with the above symptoms (and others) being experienced to varying degrees, and which can begin up to 5 years before the onset of the menopause.

Whilst it will usually occur for women aged between 45 – 55, stereotypes should be avoided as some women will experience the menopause in their 20s and 30s (1 in 100 before the age of 40). Further, there may well be transgender male employees suffering from menopausal symptoms either because their ovaries remain in place, or as a consequence of undergoing hormonal treatments or hysterectomy.

With men typically making up senior management (and understandably not having a full grasp of the potential impact of the menopause), it is therefore incumbent on employers to know (and in some cases learn) how to manage women experiencing the menopause.

Litigation risk

Owing to a greater awareness of their employment rights, women are empowered more than ever to challenge the status quo and this empowerment has translated into Employment Tribunal (ET) litigation. According to the latest UK data, there were 5 ET claims referencing the claimant’s menopause in 2018, 6 in 2019, 16 in 2020 and 10 in the first six months of 2021 alone. The numbers are small but the trend is clear.

The biggest risk to business is that of discrimination. Given the potential debilitating impact of the menopause over a long period of time, for some sufferers it is more than capable of amounting to a disability under the Equality Act 2010, opening the door to disability discrimination claims alongside the more obvious sex and age discrimination. The Birmingham ET demonstrated exactly that in 2020 when a Judge ruled that the claimant was disabled by reason of menopause, stating: “I see no reason why, in principle, ‘typical’ menopausal symptoms cannot have the relevant disabling effect on an individual”. The claimant experienced hot flushes (10 – 12 times a day) and woke most nights due to hot sweats, triggering anxiety.

Compensation in discrimination claims is uncapped and awards can vary significantly. In a separate 2019 ET claim, a claimant was awarded £18,000 for injury to feelings after her line manager made derogatory comments relating to the menopause and her employer failed to discuss appropriate adjustments with her. The derogatory comments were triggered by the claimant’s performance which her manager linked to the menopause. On one occasion he criticised her for failing to staple two pieces of paper together, relating this to her being menopausal.

So what can employers do?

1. Introduce policy and guidance

If they do not have one already, employers should consider introducing a menopause policy that outlines the organisation’s commitment to viewing menopause as a serious workplace issue. A significant first step would be for senior management to release a clear statement that recognises this. These actions in themselves will demonstrate to employees that the business is taking the issue seriously.

2. Training

It is essential to provide training to help line managers and colleagues understand how to support those experiencing the menopause. There are various resources out there but the CIPD recently issued guidance specifically for line managers.

3. Reasonable adjustments

Simple workplace adjustments can have a significant impact on alleviating menopausal symptoms (and mitigate the risk of a discrimination claim). These could be as straightforward as providing desk fans, air conditioning, access to showers, adjusting uniform requirements, use of a quiet room, allowing additional breaks, reducing or modifying working or reallocating duties.

4. Flexible working arrangements

Consider relaxing the employee’s terms and conditions in relation to working arrangements, such as allowing working from home, flexible working hours, part time, staggered or annualised hours or job sharing.

5. Raise awareness

This is obvious but talking about menopause and communicating it in the right way can go a long way to creating a supportive environment. Awareness-raising can take various forms such as menopause cafes, posters and webinars. The aim should be to normalise the issue, thereby minimising the stigma.

Implications for employers

Menopause is a natural transition experienced by all women, yet it tends not to be discussed. With ET claims increasing as women become more aware of their rights, businesses should reflect on their approach, not only to reduce the litigation risk (and the reputational and financial liabilities that flow from that) but to embed a culture in which women feel supported and able to openly discuss and address issues arising from the menopause.

A commitment to recognising menopause as a serious issue will help to foster an inclusive culture where discrimination against women experiencing these symptoms is not tolerated, and where the contributions, presence and perspectives of women who are experiencing menopausal symptoms are recognised so that they feel valued and integrated in the workplace. 

With 6 in 10 women saying they have witnessed the menopause being treated as a joke in the workplace, now is the time to start giving the menopause the attention it deserves.


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