In July 2017 the Government Equalities Office published a report about the effect menopause has on women in the workplace. Over the last 30 years employment rates for women over 50 have seen the biggest increase of any group, meaning that more will go through menopause whilst in employment than ever before.
According to NHS guidance, the average age for a woman to reach menopause is 51, but premature menopause can occur at any age, and 1 in 100 women will reach menopause before the age of 40. Many employers may not realise that women of any age can be affected by menopause and a recent article by BBC news tells the story of a women who at the age of 19, following surgery for ovarian cancer, developed early-onset menopause.
Symptoms of menopause are varied (both physical and psychological) and can range in severity but include hot flushes, difficulty sleeping, anxiety and problems with memory and concentration, all of which can affect a person’s ability to perform in the workplace. Given the number of women of working age affected by menopause, this is clearly a workplace issue, and yet it is not something that is widely talked about, in part because there is still a stigma associated with menopause.
There has, however, been some development in this area. In particular, in October 2019 Channel 4 launched a dedicated menopause policy with the aim of supporting employees experiencing symptoms and promoting better understanding of the impact of menopause. These are really forward thinking policies, and whilst more companies have followed suit, policies like this are still few and far between. Asking for help and support in these situations is hard, so to have your employer saying that it’s there for you without having to ask is really important.
For all employers, having a sensible menopause policy is something that should be considered and dealt with proactively. This is important, not only so they will be able to assist individual employees who may need the support it provides, which is valuable, but also so they can show that they are decent employers. A survey has suggested, for example, that 78% of Channel 4 staff feel better about Channel 4 as a place to work since the menopause policy was launched in 2019.
In the absence of a menopause policy, what rights do staff have?
Menopause is not a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010, however there have been a number of cases in the Employment Tribunal where the treatment of women undergoing menopause has given rise to successful discrimination claims.
We have set out some key examples of treatment that might give rise to a claim below, however this is not an exhaustive list. Employers should be mindful of their obligations in relation to preventing and dealing with discrimination and should seek specialist advice if required:
- Where menopause amounts to a disability under the Equality Act 2010 (if it has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities) employers have a duty to make reasonable adjustments (for example, adjusting sickness absence policies), and a failure to do so may also give rise to a claim of disability discrimination;
- If employers treats menopause symptoms differently to how they treat other conditions (i.e. where a man has symptoms that are similar), this could amount to less favourable treatment and give rise to a claim for direct sex discrimination;
- In light of the fact that the average age for a woman to reach menopause is 51, employees may have a case for age discrimination if their employer treats them less favourably because they are of menopausal age (direct discrimination) or has a policy which unfairly disadvantages those suffering symptoms of the menopause (indirect discrimination);
- Furthermore, if employees complain about discrimination and are treated badly as a result of raising concerns, this could amount to unlawful victimisation.
What should employers do to support employees who have been affected by menopause?
In October 2019 ACAS published useful guidance for employers ‘to help manage the impact of menopause at work’. In our view ethical employers should be looking to introduce their own policies about menopause. Having a written framework available to employees on this topic will encourage them to speak to their line managers/HR and get the support they need.
That’s why we’ve created a template menopause policy, which is available to download here for free, with the aim of encouraging more companies to introduce a menopause policy and promoting a more positive dialogue around the issue of menopause in the workplace.
Employers should also look to update and include specific provisions in their sickness absences policies and diversity and inclusion policies and training to address menopause.
If you are an employer wanting advice or an individual wanting more information about your rights in respect of this area call 0808 252 5231 to speak to one of our Employment Law specialists to find out how we can help.