Menopause and employment law – How does the menopause impact on working life and what are the potential legal claims arising from it?
The menopause is a natural stage of life, and in an ideal world, it would be a subject that everyone would feel comfortable talking about. Yet many people find it challenging to open up about the menopause, and women suffer difficult symptoms in silence. The taboo of menopause is particularly prevalent in the work environment – this needs to change.
A new TUC survey of 4,000 women reported that 85% of the respondents said the menopause affected their working life. The Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD) and BUPA completed an additional study that found three in five menopausal women (mainly aged between 45 and 55) were negatively affected at work. This could be resulting in women leaving businesses at the peak of their experience and expertise. Women in this age bracket are also more likely to be suitable for management roles, so their exit can reduce executive-level diversity. Along with such importance placed on closing the gender pay gap, women leaving the workplace due to the menopause is not helping the cause.
With the impact on working life and potential legal claims arising, employers must understand the implications of the menopause and think about the support they can provide. This article aims to provide employers and HR professionals with a basic understanding of the menopause and how they can support staff to make a positive change. Although the term ‘women’ is referred to throughout this article, the menopause can also affect people from transgender, non-binary and intersex communities.
The Menopause Explained
Many women find it a bit daunting to talk about the menopause with someone who knows little about it. One of the most helpful first steps to an employer providing support is understanding how the menopause can affect women’s lives. In addition, some women who are at the beginning of their menopausal journey may still be learning about the menopause themselves, so providing information and raising awareness in the workplace will make the topic more approachable.
When a woman becomes menopausal, her oestrogen levels fall, and she stops having periods. During perimenopause (the time leading up to the menopause), hormonal changes can trigger many psychological and physical symptoms. For some, their symptoms will be mild or non-existent but for others, they can experience severe symptoms and find it a challenge to deal with. The perimenopause can potentially last for years – affecting a woman’s performance and attendance at work.
Most women in the UK go through the menopause between the ages of 45 and 55. However, younger women aged 40 to 50 can also be affected by early menopause or premature menopause before the age of 40. Premature menopause can occur due to surgery (such as a hysterectomy) or medical treatments (such as cancer). The impact of menopause can also vary among different ethnic groups.
Every woman’s experience of the perimenopause will be different, and her symptoms will likely go up and down and change over time. While most women benefit from looking at their lifestyle and making practical changes to ease menopausal symptoms, some choose to manage their symptoms with hormone replacement therapy (HRT).
Common menopausal symptoms include:
- Hot flushes (the feeling of heat in the face, neck and chest)
- Aches and pains
- Urgent or regular need to urinate
- Irregular or very heavy periods
- Poor sleep and night sweats
- Reduced concentration, memory problems, and an inability to think clearly (known as ‘brain fog’)
Some women also experience mood changes, anxiety, or feeling low. Stress at work can exacerbate these symptoms. Without the proper treatment or support, menopausal symptoms can make it difficult for women to cope at work – resulting in loss of confidence and affecting relationships with colleagues and those in their private lives. This can result in a drop in their morale and professional performance, leading to days off.
Supporting Staff with Menopause
The menopause should be treated with the same support and understanding given to any other employee with ongoing health concerns. Some women find the menopause a particularly sensitive and personal issue. They may be worried about being stigmatised by colleagues or their employer, so it needs to be approached with care.
Normalising the menopause in the workplace can help show it is taken seriously and that women should not be embarrassed or worried to bring up the topic. There are many things employers can do to help make the topic of menopause more approachable.
The menopause is a recognised occupational health issue and a gender and age equality issue. Employers can use workplace guidance to highlight that they are committed to supporting staff through all stages of life. Health and safety policies should be reviewed, updated, or created to ensure it considers the needs of employees of all ages. Areas to consider include:
- Specific menopause policies or a general wellbeing policy that acknowledges the menopause as a key health issue.
- Flexible working and sickness absence policies to cover employees going through the menopause.
- Appoint someone staff can speak to about menopausal symptoms and effects it is having on their work.
- Carry out a workplace assessment to make sure the work environment is not making menopausal symptoms worse.
- Schedule regular informal one-to-one conversations with employees to encourage openness about any issues (including health) that may be affecting their work. Staff should be reassured that any discussions about their health will remain confidential, and information will only be shared with their consent.
It is essential that it is support that is offered, not medical advice. Employees should be encouraged to see their GP if menopausal symptoms are affecting their daily lives. If available, staff can be signposted to an employee assistance programme (EAP) or counselling service
Menopause and Discrimination
Recent news headlines are showing that the number of unfair dismissal and sex discrimination claims being taken to tribunal with menopause at the centre of the argument is on the rise. In 2018, there were five Employment Tribunal cases connected to the menopause, in 2019 there were six, and in 2020 the number rose to sixteen. In the first half of 2021, there were ten tribunal cases and the number is expected to increase.
The Equality Act 2010 does not specifically protect the menopause. However, suppose an employee is treated unfairly because of the menopause. In that case, it can amount to discrimination based on one or more protected characteristics – such as age, sex, and disability. In addition, employers need to remember that trans men and non-binary employees may also experience the menopause, so they should not be discriminated against.
- Age discrimination – The menopause tends to affect those within a certain age bracket, so employers need to be mindful of direct or indirect age discrimination. A review of any procedures or policies which may cause menopausal employees to be treated less favourably should be rectified.
- Sex discrimination – An example of the menopause being viewed as sex discrimination could be when an employer takes a woman’s menopausal symptoms less seriously than a male employee’s health condition when carrying out a performance review.
- Disability discrimination – Although the menopause is not classed as a disability in and of itself, Employment Tribunals have accepted that in cases of severe menopausal symptoms, it can amount to a disability. The Equality Act 2010 defines disability as a mental or physical impairment that has a significant and long-term (of at least 12 months) adverse effect on an individual’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.
With so many women feeling the need to continue to maintain silence around their experience of the menopause, it is crucial employers do their part to remove the taboo around the subject of menopause. The fear of ageism, losing their jobs, or losing respect if they admit to symptoms like brain fog or hot flushes must be removed. Women experiencing the menopause should feel empowered to speak openly about their symptoms with employers and not allow this natural stage of life to impact their work-life negatively.
Providing information and raising awareness within the workplace can make a difference for everyone – whether it is for the women experiencing the menopause themselves or for those in a position where they could provide support to a colleague.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Does the Equality Act 2010 cover the menopause?
The Equality Act 2010 does not directly cover the menopause. However, suppose an employee is put at a disadvantage and treated less favourably because of their menopause symptoms. In that case, it can be treated as discrimination if related to a protected characteristic (such as age or sex).
Are employees entitled to have time off work for menopause?
There is no official requirement to allow employees to have specific time off during the menopause or time off to cope with menopausal symptoms. However, it is important to be aware that it is possible for a menopausal or perimenopausal employee to be considered as having a disability under the Equality Act 2010.
Is menopause a wider diversity issue?
Some studies indicate that women from different ethnicities have different menopausal and perimenopausal symptoms. For example, the Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation (SWAN) conducted in the USA showed that women of colour tend to enter perimenopause and menopause earlier than their white peers and have longer transition periods.
How long does the menopause last?
Every woman is different, but as a rough guide, once in the menopause and on into post menopause, symptoms can go on for an average of four to five years. Over this time, the symptoms can decrease in frequency and intensity. However, some women have reported their menopausal symptoms lasting longer.
Do employers have to have a menopause policy?
There is no legal requirement for employers to have a menopause policy in place or to protect employees experiencing menopause symptoms. There is also no legal protection for businesses that experience any undue impact because of an employee’s menopause symptoms affecting their ability to work. However, having a menopause policy could help improve the attitude towards menopause and support those experiencing the menopause, as part of a coherent equality, diversity and inclusion strategy’