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MPs call for UK businesses to offer better support to employees going through the menopause

The call comes in response to reports that over a third of women have missed work because of symptoms. Research estimates that 14 million working days a year are being lost to the UK economy as a result of menopausal symptoms.

The Women and Equalities Committee (WEC) reported that of the 2,161 women surveyed, 19% did not know how or who to seek advice from in relation to workplace adjustments they want to request and 26% admitted to not asking for them at all out of worry over the reaction of their colleagues. Such figures form part of the WEC’s inquiry into the extent of discrimination in the workplace in relation to people going through the menopause. Many women feel ashamed, says Caroline Nokes, Conservative MP and chair of the WEC who felt saddened but not surprised by the results. Meantime, research estimates that 14 million working days a year are being lost to the UK economy as a result of menopausal symptoms, a situation exacerbated by the current shortage of Home Replacement Therapy (HRT), the problem being so severe that the Government is planning to appoint an HRT “Tsar” to help solve the acuate shortages.

What is the menopause?

‘Menopause’: A natural process of aging. The stage when the ovaries completely stop producing reproductive hormones.

It normally occurs between the ages of 45 and 55 however, this is just an estimation and some people may go through it before 40. This process can affect women, trans people, intersex people and non-binary persons.

There are three stages to the menopause:

  • Peri-menopause;
  • Menopause;
  • Post-menopause.

It can cause a range of symptoms such as (and not limited to) hot flushes, fatigue, depression, anxiety and difficulty concentrating. Such symptoms can last up to 10 years and can at times be detrimental to women in the workplace.

Menopause and the law

The menopause is not a standalone protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010. However, if the symptoms are severe enough to have a long-term effect on the individual then they may bring an employee within the definition of a disabled person (i.e. an employee with a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long term, negative effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities).  Therefore, if an employee or worker is put at a disadvantage and treated less favourably as a result of menopause symptoms which are severe enough to amount to a disability, this could be disability discrimination.  In addition, an employer of an employee with a disability is required to make reasonable adjustments for them in the workplace to combat the disadvantages faced by the employee (e.g. different working hours, more time to complete tasks).  Equally, if the treatment relates to another protected characteristic such as age, gender reassignment and/or sex, this could also result in a discrimination claim. For more information see ACAS: Menopause and the Law.

So what should employers be doing to offer support?

“Much of this is about practical adjustments for employees and stamping out ‘boorish’ banter that menopause is a ‘women’s problem’ or a joke” Nokes explains.

It can be a difficult and stressful time for those experiencing symptoms and it’s important for employers to recognise the menopause as health and wellbeing concern that must be handled sensitively.   There are a number of measures that employers can put in place:

Training

Offering appropriate training will spread awareness and encourage open conversations in the workplace. Line managers will be better equipped to deal with menopause issues in a fair and sensitive manner if they are educated on the subject. This should not only avoid potential issues later down the line but should ensure a better level of trust between employees and managers. Staff are likely to be more confident to speak out when they know that they are being supported by someone who:

  • is aware of the effects of the menopause;
  • knows what types of support they can offer; and
  • talks and listens sensitively.

Health and Safety Checks

By law, employers must conduct risk assessments of their staff’s work and workplace. For staff affected by the menopause this goes beyond a standard assessment. Employers should consider if menopause symptoms will be made worse by the workplace or work practices such as temperature and ventilation, the material and/or restrictiveness of the employee uniform and accessible toilet facilities. Adjustments such as temperature control, flexible working and frequent rest breaks are just some of the physical adjustments that could be beneficial for those going through the menopause.

Developing a Menopause Policy

No matter how many physical adjustments are made, the primary focus of employers should be to change the narrative surrounding the menopause. One way employers can show that they are serious about providing support is by developing and implementing a Menopause Policy.

This should ensure that everyone in the organisation can understand: what the menopause is; how it affects people differently; and what type of support can be made available to staff.

The policy should encourage open conversation, identify a point of contact and outline fully any contributions the organisation would like to provide towards specialist help (e.g. contributing to the cost of staff appointments with menopause specialists).

Engagement with staff experiencing the menopause is crucial in ensuring that employers are providing enough support and that any policy in place is improving matters. Employers should actively implement measures, have routine check ins with their staff and regularly review health and safety risks.

Resources

The Law Society of Scotland recently published a useful Menopause Support Resource. This is tailored to the legal profession but is also relevant to other industries and makes some recommendations to employers and signposts resources for individuals. ACAS has also published a comprehensive guidance document, Menopause at work which makes similar recommendations though not specific to the legal profession.

If you are an employer who wishes to discuss the implementation of a Menopause Policy or has other questions around employment and menopause please get in touch with us.

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