Menopause in the workplace
Sufferers of chronic illness or those with disabilities are afforded a fair level of protection in the workplace under UK employment law. But can the same be said about women going through the menopause, a proportion of whom will endure a number of debilitating and severe symptoms?
The number of employment tribunals where the claimant has cited the menopause has more than doubled since 2019, with many employers left questioning exactly what their legal obligations are.
Of course, all women will experience the menopause with differing severity, so there will be no one size fits all approach for managing the effects it can have in the workplace. But that is no excuse for business owners not to plan ahead in order to minimise the potential for legal action in the future.
So how businesses can enhance their professional environments to avoid facing claims of discrimination? Here are the facts;
How the menopause can affect the workplace?
With 75-80% still at work, women of a menopausal age form the fastest-growing demographic across the UK workforce. 30-60% of these women will suffer acute menopausal symptoms, with a projected 14 million workdays lost per year due to the persistent physical and/or psychological complaints they endure.
25% of the worst affected have contemplated quitting their job at some point, with an apprehension about disclosing menopause-related health challenges to male or younger managers being cited as a key factor in this.
What does the law say?
There isn’t any legislation dedicated solely to protecting menopausal women, but their interests are covered under the Equality Act 2010 which comprises of three primary characteristics: age, sex, and disability discrimination; and the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 which encompasses working conditions.
Court rulings in menopause-related tribunals can be very inconsistent, with comparable claims often achieving very different outcomes, particularly when the case is that of disability discrimination. Although acute, long-term menopausal symptoms are theoretically covered under section 6 of the Equality Act (disability), the menopause is in itself medically considered to be a phase of life, much like teething or pregnancy. So, whilst there have been a small number of successful disability claims, the vast majority will be based on a case of sex discrimination.
What can employers do?
Employers do not have any protection from the effect that an employee’s symptoms or absenteeism might have on a business’ performance. But they are also not legally obliged to have a dedicated policy to help aid employees through the menopause.
However, to ensure clarity in the workplace, ACAS recommends that a policy be created to define how the business plans on tackling issues bought about by the menopause.
It ought to cover awareness-raising, and the provision of confidential support networks, along with advice about how not to exacerbate a woman’s symptoms by creating a hostile working environment.
Including risk assessments is critical for protecting all concerned, and these should explicitly address topics such as flexible working, drinking water, ventilation, and restrooms.
It is also sensible to incorporate potential self-help measures that may help sufferers to alleviate any symptoms whilst at work. For example:
- Healthy eating
- Reducing intake of caffeine
- Frequent exercise
- Taking breaks
- Natural lighting
- Wearing natural fibres
- No smoking or drinking alcohol
It is prudent to examine any new policy alongside an occupational health professional to ensure that it isn’t open to misinterpretation, which is often a starting point for many discrimination claims.
Be aware that employment tribunals can be deeply personal, stressful, and expensive for everyone, so it is vital that all concerned first try to find mutually agreeable solutions to these problems. Legal action should only ever be the last resort, and should never be entered into lightly.