There are more women aged 45+ in work than ever before. However, the word ‘menopause’ is still a taboo! There are reports that some women are embarrassed to talk about their symptoms and that they feel employers/colleagues (not limited to the male of the species) are uncomfortable listening to women talk about their difficulties dealing with the symptoms of the menopause.
What exactly is the menopause?
The symptoms of the menopause can include hot flushes, night sweats and difficulty sleeping, depression, anxiety and decreased memory and concentration. The symptoms usually last around 4 years, though for some women they can last much longer and remember that different women will experience different menopausal symptoms.
Worrying at work
Menopausal symptoms can massively interfere with a woman’s working life. Imagine facing a long day at work after only 1 or 2 hours sleep, or having a hot flush in the middle of a meeting and then becoming anxious about how to excuse yourself? It’s not surprising that women often experience embarrassment and reduced confidence in the workplace.
The common anxiety symptoms associated with the change may cause some women to lose confidence in their everyday and working abilities, they may start to believe that they are less valuable to their employers as a result of menopausal issues interfering with their work. In my experience it is unusual that these thoughts are actually shared by the employer although there are still a few antiquated practices and businesses out there. Nevertheless these thoughts can cause menopausal women to choose to reduce working hours or even leave employment altogether.
Managing the Menopause – Advice for Employers
As an employer, you should be acknowledging your health, safety and welfare responsibilities to all your employees, including menopausal women. Recognising that women may require additional support at work may mean that you get to retain that dedicated female employee, who might otherwise have left without your support.
Creating an advertised, open, but confidential, communication channel for women to discuss problems or concerns related to the menopause at work is the first big step. Encourage communication about symptoms, especially where menopausal women are managed by younger/male employees. Ensure that all employees have an understanding of what the menopause is and how it affects work so that they can identify and solve any related issues with confidence.
You should be thinking about what occupational practices you could introduce to support women suffering from symptoms of the menopause. For example;
- Flexible working/later start times to combat issues caused by sleep disturbance;
- Flexible sickness absence procedures to cater for menopause-related sickness absence;
- Work facilities such as access to cold water, restrooms, private space, ventilation or alternative uniforms if uniforms are worn at work;
- Being mindful as to whether symptoms are affecting performance and/or attendance at work;
- Working closely with occupational health specialists will certainly help overcome any embarrassing communication channels and will also help the business to identify any other reasonable adjustments that may make working life easier for menopausal women.
Does the menopause amount to a disability in law?
In order for menopause to be classed as a disability in England and Wales, the law requires that the condition must have a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long term adverse effect on their ability to carry out day to day activates. As such it should not automatically be assumed that a woman going through the menopause will attract protection in the work place provided by The Equality Act 2010, it is advisable to look at each case on its own facts.
The failure to make reasonable adjustments may also lead to a discrimination claim as it is a breach of the law. Given that the menopause usually affects women of a certain age you should ensure that working practices do not adversely affect women of menopausal age, to avoid any claims of sex and/or age discrimination.
For example an employer imposing a strict uniform policy and refusing any requests to wear different attire during the menopausal cycle. This is because when a menopausal women is having a hot flush, the uniform may reveal sweat patches easily or becomes transparent which can be embarrassing and very upsetting for the affected employee. If the employer refuses to make changes to the uniform this could amount to indirect sex discrimination.
You should be alert to any problems that may arise for menopausal working women and you should be taking steps to make adjustments in the workplace, just as you would for any other employee struggling with their health.
Employers should seek legal advice wherever possible where they have concerns about actual or perceived female-only health issues. Discrimination on the basis of a protective characteristic is not only unlawful but opens up a liability for potentially unlimited damages. Apart from this, and often more damaging, discriminatory conduct can interfere with workplace moral, demotivate female employees, and set the tone for a workforce that is not fully engaged.