It is a condition that affects 50% of the world’s population and can result in severe physical symptoms and mental anguish that can last for many years. And yet, women going through the menopause often face discrimination, belittlement and shame when their symptoms affect them at work. Perimenopausal and menopausal women will often face discriminatory comments disguised as ‘jokes’ or ‘banter’, as well as a lack of understanding from employers if their symptoms begin to have an impact on their performance.
According to a 2019 survey conducted by BUPA and the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD), three in five women are negatively affected by menopause symptoms at work. It also found that almost 900,000 women had left their jobs over an unspecified period directly due to the effects of the menopause.
A lack of understanding
Many people will likely be able to name one or two better-known symptoms of menopause, for example hot flushes or memory loss. What is less understood is the range and severity of symptoms the condition can have, including: insomnia; heart palpitations; headaches and migraines; muscle and joint pain; weight gain; dry, itchy skin; urinary tract infections; brain fog, memory loss and concentration issues; low mood, anxiety and low self-esteem.
There are other symptoms that may not affect women directly in the workplace, such as low libido and discomfort during intimacy, which may nonetheless contribute to their general mood or self-esteem.
And yet, the menopause is a topic that frequently finds itself the butt of jokes in the workplace. As a result, many women find that they are not taken seriously and are not given the support they need to continue succeeding in their role. According to recent research, 76% of menopausal women said they would like to see better support from their employer – but more than half (53%) also said they didn’t feel comfortable raising the issue with their manager or employer. And one in five suggested that a male-dominated workplace or male manager was the primary reason for their discomfort.
The legal position
Employers should be aware of several pieces of legislation that relate to the treatment of menopausal women in the workplace, these being:
The Equality Act 2010, which protects workers ‘protected characteristics’ from discrimination
The Health & Safety at Work Act, which stipulates that employers must ensure the health, safety and welfare of employees where it is reasonably practicable to do so.
While the menopause is not a protected characteristic under the Equality Act, employers who discriminate against a menopausal woman could find themselves facing a claim in relation to another protected characteristic, such as sex, age or disability.
Similarly, employers who are found to have failed in their duties to look after an employee’s health and welfare at work could also be exposing themselves to claims under the Health & Safety at Work Act.
In recent years, the number of employment tribunal claims relating to the menopause has increased significantly. There were six such claims in 2019, 16 in 2020 and 23 in 2021. Many of these tribunals have resulted in landmark judgements that have set a precedent for how menopause cases should be approached in the future.
For example, in A v Bonmarche Ltd , a woman who was humiliated by her boss in front of younger employees, called a ‘dinosaur’ and subjected to demeaning comments about her menopause symptoms, saw her claim of sex and age discrimination upheld by a tribunal. And in Rooney v Leicester City Council , Maria Rooney brought a claim for sex and disability discrimination against her employer after she was issued with a formal warning following a sickness absence with no regard for her severe menopause symptoms. While the tribunal initially dismissed her claims, the Employment Appeal Tribunal ruled that Ms Rooney’s menopause symptoms did in fact amount to a disability – i.e., a substantial and long-term adverse effect on her ability to perform day-to-day activities.
Menopause and the modern-day workplace
With all this in mind, how can today’s employers support menopausal women in the workplace and reduce the risk of damaging employment claims? Here are just a few:
- Adopt a workplace menopause policy that outlines the company’s approach to supporting menopausal women and how discrimination and harassment will be dealt with
- Provide employees with training and information so that as a workplace you all have a better understanding of the symptoms of menopause and the impact it can have
- Create a culture of openness around the menopause and encourage employees to speak with their line manager if their menopause symptoms are affecting their work
- Appoint a ‘menopause champion’ – a designated point of contact for women to speak to if they don’t feel comfortable approaching their manager in the first instance
- Conduct a risk assessment to understand the needs and experiences of menopausal women in the workplace.
- Taking specialist advice and guidance
If you’re an employer who is serious about improving your business’s response to women experiencing menopause symptoms, we can help. Our specialist employment lawyers are on hand to provide strategic advice and guidance, draw up new policies and procedures, and keep you up to date with the latest developments in this evolving field.
For advice or help, call Woodfines Solicitors on 0344 967 2505 or email firstname.lastname@example.org