World Menopause Day - time to break the taboo!

20 October 2021

Monday (18 October) was World Menopause Day.  It provides an opportunity to break the stigma and taboo that still exist around menopause and to encourage open dialogue about what is a natural and very significant transition in a woman’s life.

The subject of menopause seems to be receiving increased attention in recent months, not least following Davina McCall’s documentary on Channel 4 and the launch of the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee inquiry in the Summer as to whether existing discrimination legislation and workplace practices should be changed to better protect those experiencing menopause whilst at work.

Why the fuss?

In 2019, there were over 4.3 million women aged 45-60 employed in the UK (the time they are most likely to experience the menopause) and this is the fastest growing demographic in the workplace.

As stated by the Women and Equalities Committee when their inquiry was launched, almost a million women in the UK have left jobs as a result of menopausal symptoms.  Many of those women are likely to have been highly skilled and in managerial positions within their organisations. 

It is no doubt devastating for women to feel they have no choice but to leave their job at the height of their career as a result of menopause and, from an employer’s perspective, it is a huge loss to any business to lose such a valuable and reliable cohort of talent which is very difficult to replace. 

What is the menopause?

The menopause is part of the aging process in a woman’s life during which her periods stop and her ovaries lose reproductive function as her body produces less oestrogen.  It normally occurs between the ages of 45 and 55, but in some cases women may become menopausal much earlier.

The period leading up to the menopause (when a woman’s body begins to change and she starts to experience symptoms), which typically starts four or five years before menopause itself, is called the perimenopause.  Women may also continue to experience symptoms after menopause and that is called the post-menopause phase.  The symptoms are the same in all phases, though the number of symptoms experienced and their severity will vary between the stages and from person to person.  Symptoms can last for up to 15 years in total.

Symptoms of menopause (of which there are many) include hot flushes, night sweats, insomnia, poor memory, loss of concentration, anxiety/low mood, weight gain, hair loss, irregular bleeding, light-headedness and joint stiffness.

These symptoms can be incredibly distressing and have a significant impact on a woman’s general wellbeing and ability to carry out their job.  This can impact not only their productivity and performance, but also their attendance and morale at work. 

 What do employers need to be aware of?

Employers should be aware that the way in which women experiencing menopause are treated at work could give rise to claims of discrimination and/or harassment on grounds of sex, age and/or disability. 

For example, colleagues making jokes about a woman having “a senior moment” when she struggles to remember something or makes a mistake, or placing fans by her work station without being asked or making other jovial comments about her symptoms could amount to harassment on grounds of sex or age.

Menopause itself does not currently fall within the definition of “disability” under the Equality Act 2010.  However, the symptoms of menopause may, depending on their severity and the impact they have on a woman’s ability to carry out day-to-day activities, mean that a woman is disabled for the purposes of that legislation.  In a fairly recent case (August 2020), an Employment Tribunal confirmed that “typical” menopausal symptoms could amount to a disability and that any treatment for those symptoms should be disregarded when assessing whether or not they do. 

A finding that a menopausal woman is disabled would not only mean she is protected from discrimination, but would also place a positive duty on the employer to make “reasonable adjustments” to remove the disadvantage suffered by her because of her condition compared to others.  Adjustments could include changing an individual’s start and finish times, providing desk fans/ventilation, providing access to a quiet space/room and access to cold water.

What can employers do to help women going through the menopause?

Steps employers can take include the following:

  • Raise awareness.  Circulating materials to all employees is a good place to start to raise awareness generally.  Material could include not only facts and information about what the menopause is and its symptoms, but also coping strategies and tips on what colleagues can do to support each other.  Education about terminology and insensitive behaviour can also helpful.  As a starting point, the British Menopause Society and Women’s Health Concern have just launched a Menopause in the Workplace section on their websites providing guidance, help and advice for employers and employees.  There are also very helpful resources on the CIPD website and menopause at work guidance produced by ACAS.
  • Encourage dialogue.  Normalise the menopause and invite people to have open conversations about what it involves and what can be done to support those experiencing it.  Develop a culture that allows staff to speak about their experience and reiterate that those experiencing the menopause are valued members of staff.
  • Train managers.  Managers should be given specific training and/or guidance on the menopause.  That is, the symptoms and how to spot them, how to have conversations about menopause with their team members and how to effectively support staff with any work-related issues that arise.  In particular, managers should be guided on managing sickness absence and any drop in performance by members of their team who may be experiencing menopause, whilst remaining mindful of the employer’s legal duties and possible legal risks.
  • Consider putting in place a menopause policy.  Though not critical, putting in place a menopause policy setting out an employer’s approach to menopause at work may help to raise awareness and demonstrate to staff that the employer values and wishes to support those experiencing the menopause.

What can individuals do?

There are also steps individuals can take to help themselves and their employer to support them.  Examples include:

  • Open communication.  Individuals should be open with their line management and HR about the fact that they may be going through the menopause, particularly if they are experiencing symptoms affecting their performance or presentation at work.
  • Be proactive.  Women should seek medical advice from their GP at an early stage.  Women would be well advised to raise the possibility of menopause being the cause of their symptoms if their GP does not raise it first (it may not have occurred to them.  According to research carried out by Nuffield Health, a quarter of the respondents who visited a GP said the possibility of the symptoms being menopause related was missed).
  • Seek help.  There are plenty of online resources, support groups/networks and coaching professionals who specialise in supporting women experiencing the menopause.  People should not suffer in silence!

Conclusion

Menopause affects different women in different ways.  There is clearly not a one size fits all approach to dealing with individuals experiencing the menopause in the workplace.  However, one thing is certain and that is the fact that this will continue to be a rising workplace issue in the years ahead.   It is therefore in the interests of all concerned to break the taboo around menopause and to encourage open dialogue to ensure that employees feel supported and that valuable talent is not unnecessarily lost.  Employers should remain mindful of the issue and seek advice at an early stage if complications arise.  

FURTHER INFORMATION

If you have any questions or concerns about the content covered in this blog, please contact a member of the Employment team.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Özlem Mehmet is a Professional Support Lawyer in our Employment Team. Before joining Kingsley Napley, Özlem was a Tutor and Team Leader at BPP University’s Law School, teaching on the Legal Practice Course.  She taught the Employment Law, Business Law & Practice, Corporate Finance and Equity Finance modules of the course, as well as the skills modules of Interviewing & Advising and Professional Conduct & Regulation.  She also supervised a number of Masters level projects on employment law-related topics.

 

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