Helping women feel supported in their workplace as they experience the menopause is beneficial both to employees and employers. But following a number of recent tribunal claims against employers for failing to meet their duties, employers are under increasing pressure to ensure they are providing employees experiencing the menopause with adequate support.
Guidance published in November 2022 for the NHS set a benchmark for standards of supporting workers through the menopause, with NHS England chief executive Amanda Pritchard calling on other employers to follow in its footsteps.
The changing demographic of our working population means that there are 3.5 million women over the age of 50 in the workforce, and this number is set to rise. With nearly 8 out of 10 menopausal women in work, 3 in 4 of those women will experience symptoms and 1 in 4 of them will have severe symptoms.
While considerations for employers may at first glance focus on legal risks, such as avoiding discrimination, setting the agenda wider by taking a collaborative and informed approach can help to support workers through what can be a hugely challenging phase in their life.
Understanding menopause symptoms
As an employer, it is helpful to understand the symptoms of the menopause and recognise the potential impact these can have on a woman’s physical, emotional and mental health, and overall quality of life.
Menopause affects women differently. Symptoms can include night sweats, hot flushes, hair thinning. mood swings, headaches, joint stiffness ad weight gain. There are additional highly personal symptoms that can cause further stress and anxiety for women. Women can also suffer symptoms when they are perimenopausal, i.e. when their bodies are preparing for the menopause. The menopause can occur naturally or be brought on by surgery (known as ‘surgical menopause’). It is also important to recognise that while the average age for women to reach the menopause is 51, many experience menopause much younger.
The effects of the symptoms on the employee can vary. Some may be absent from work more often. Stress and anxiety may also have a detrimental effect on performance at work, and as a result, it is not uncommon for women to lose confidence and potentially consider leaving their job.
Feeling supported within the workplace can be a hugely positive factor in helping women through this process.
Yet, because of historic stigma, menopausal employees are unlikely to be open with their manager about the effects on them of going through the menopause. They might not feel able or comfortable discussing their situation with their manager or HR. They might also feel there is no benefit of bringing this to their employer’s attention, as nothing will be done in response, or worse, they will be treated less favourably.
Employee support through menopause
The major benefit to your organisation of improving menopause support is that you will retain the skills and expertise that those employees bring to your workforce. It will also benefit the workforce as a whole to know that their employer will support its employees through ‘tough times’ and encourage a culture of respect and responsibility.
From a costs perspective, the cost of recruiting and training new employees far outweighs the costs of making small adjustments to the working practices of menopausal employees so that they can stay in their jobs.
There will also be additional costs due to absence from work if a menopausal employee is not managed properly. Where employees feel able to approach their managers to explain the aspects of their work that they are struggling to manage alongside their menopausal symptoms, they will mostly continue to attend work because they are being supported to do so. Where a menopausal employee does not feel able to talk about their condition at work, they may feel that they have not option but to take time off, leading to further costs for your organisation and potential disputes with the employee further down the line.
Finally, by adopting a supportive approach to employees suffering from the menopause, your organisation will also avoid costly grievance or disciplinary proceedings or worse, employment tribunal claims.
Employers’ responsibilities & employees’ rights
Employees experiencing the menopause or who are suffering from perimenopausal symptoms are covered through various principles of employment law and Acts of Parliament, both directly and indirectly.
Fundamentally, there is an implied duty of trust and confidence between employer and employee, which would include the employer taking action to facilitate a woman’s continued employment with an organisation where that employer knows that the employee is suffering with menopausal symptoms.
In relation to statutory protection of menopausal women, the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 states that where reasonably practical, employers must ensure the health and safety, both physically and mentally, of their employees. This includes ensuring that workplace practices do not worsen the experience of a menopausal employee. For example, you could assess the availability of cold drinking water for menopausal employees, and the adequacy of toilet and bathroom facilities.
You should also assess the temperature in your workplace, and potentially at relevant workstations, to see whether it can be adjusted and if not, and it is reasonably practical to do so, give a menopausal employee the option to change their workstation.
Organisations that require uniforms to be worn are also starting to explore options to improve the design and fabric used to make the uniforms more adaptable to changes in body temperature for workers such as menopausal women.
Menopausal employees also have rights under the Equality Act 2010. This Act protects employees against discrimination in the workplace on the grounds of age, gender or disability, along with other such protected characteristics. It protects those employees whether the discrimination is direct or indirect. Direct discrimination is where the employee is deliberately treated differently because of one of their protected characteristics, and indirect discrimination is where a policy or practice within the workplace has a disproportionately negative effect on someone with a protected characteristic.
There are two ways in which a menopausal employee could suffer discrimination under this heading. First, if the employee is on the receiving end of jokes or ‘banter’ regarding their condition. This could amount to harassment or even sexual harassment under the Equality Act.
Second, where a menopausal employee suffers from a drop in their performance at work, that employee could claim gender discrimination if their menopausal or peri-menopausal symptoms are not taken as seriously as if a man had the same symptoms and they affected his work.
This was the scenario in the case of Merchant v BT plc (2012). Ms Merchant was under-performing in her role and produced evidence from her GP explaining that her menopausal symptoms were affecting her concentration. However, the manager at BT decided not to make a referral to an occupational health assessment because he relied on his knowledge of his wife’s experience of the menopause for guidance and instead, he dismissed Ms Merchant. She made a claim for unfair dismissal and sex discrimination.
The Tribunal held that Ms Merchant had been the victim of direct sex discrimination because the manager would not have taken the same approach when faced with a male colleague who had a medical condition that affected his concentration.
Furthermore, the Tribunal emphasised that when dealing with the menopause, it was ‘self-evident’ that women would experience the menopause in different ways and with symptoms that are varied in their nature and intensity, and that employers should take medical information into account rather than relying on their own perceptions and beliefs.
Symptoms arising from the menopause or peri-menopause could amount to a disability where the symptoms are long-term and have a substantial effect on the employee’s ability to carry out day-to-day activities. If an employee has a disability, then the law states that an employer must make reasonable adjustments to change or reduce the effect of the disability on the employee’s ability to do their job. ACAS gives an example of a reasonable adjustment for a menopausal employee as recording sickness absence for menopausal related symptoms separately from other sickness absence.
There has also been a successful claim for disability discrimination in the Employment Tribunal by a menopausal employee.
In Davies v Scottish Courts and Tribunal Service SCTS (2018) Ms Davies claimed for unfair dismissal and disability discrimination. She was suffering from severe menopausal symptoms and had medication for cystisis which she kept her at her desk, to be dissolved in a jug of water on her table when needed. Following her return to her workstation after her court duties, she found that her personal items had been moved and two male colleagues had drunk the water in the jug. She explained that it could have contained medication (though in fact it did not), but her employer subjected her to a disciplinary investigation, after which she was dismissed for gross misconduct.
The Tribunal ordered that she be reinstated to her original job, £14,000 to compensate her for lost pay in the intervening period and £5000 for injury to feelings.
Although it does not appear that there have yet been any successful claims in the Employment Tribunal under this heading, employers should nevertheless be wary. Employees are protected against unfair treatment in the workplace because of their age and the menopause affects women in their mid-forties to mid-fifties. Employers should be careful, amongst other things, not to allow age considerations to affect their recruitment and redundancy procedures.
The examples above of cases where employees have been successful in the Employment Tribunal should not frighten employers into inaction on menopause-related issues. Rather, it is the opposite.
Employers must understand that it is through creating an open environment and assessing each case on its own merits, and empowering managers to do so through adequate training, that legal entanglements will be avoided.
Menopause policy & guidelines
One crucial way for your organisation to support employees who have reached the menopause is to devise and promote a set of internal guidelines through a specific menopause policy. This might include the following:
- options for flexible working, e.g. working from home, temporary or permanent part time working, a period of unpaid leave or an adjustment to the employee’s hours
- the option to take rest breaks within the day;
- providing a fan;
- moving the employee’s desk closer to a window that opens;
- providing a private, quiet rest area;
- the option for a menopausal employee to seek assistance from a particular person within the organisation who is trained to provide specialist assistance, instead of the employee having to go to their manager directly;
- allowing menopausal women to attend medical appointments during the working day; and
- being accommodating over the employee’s start and finish times.
Menopause education & training for managers
Employers are increasingly turning to professional training to help improve management understanding of menopause and implement the required support framework and effective information signposting.
It is important that managers are trained not only on the symptoms of the menopause , but also how to talk about it sensitively. The way to encourage menopausal employees to ask for help if they need it, is to show in the behaviour of managers and the organisation as a whole that such employees will be treated with dignity and respect.
Organisations as a whole can help enormously not only by devising a menopause policy for employees, but by providing training and guidance for managers. This in turn will help to create an environment of openness and support, which will assist not only those suffering from the menopause, but other ‘hidden’ medical conditions.
Line managers are not expected to be experts on the menopause. However, they are expected to show awareness and understanding and to support and signpost the employee to find further support where necessary.
Our HR and employment law specialists advise and guide employers on how to approach menopause in the workplace, in support of your employees. From developing guidelines for managers to advising on specific issues, speak to our experts today.
Menopause at work support FAQs
Can menopause affect work?
Yes, the menopause can have a dramatic effect on an employee’s work. For example, their physical symptoms may make them profoundly uncomfortable and unable to concentrate, or they may suffer from mood swings and depression and have to take time off work. Employers can help employees to manage their symptoms by making adjustments to employees’ working conditions.
Can employees take time off work for menopause?
Employees are not allowed specific time off during the menopause or to cope with menopausal symptoms. However, it is possible for a menopausal or perimenopausal employee to be considered as having a disability under the Equality Act 2010. As such, the employer would be under an obligation to make reasonable adjustments to assist the employee to be bale to continue to do their job. Such reasonable adjustments could include allowing the employee to work flexibly or recording sickness absence for menopausal symptoms separately from the employee’s other sickness absence.
Can employers help employees cope with menopause at work?
Yes, employers can help their employee to cope with the symptoms at work. For example, they can change where an employee works, in order that they can open a window to cool down, or how an employee works by allowing them to start and finish at different times, to work from home or to temporarily adjust their hours. Most importantly, employers should convey to their employees that they will treat them with dignity and respect if an employee comes to them for help.
Last updated: 24 November 2022