Menopause at work: Equality and Human Rights Commission issues new Guidance

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What is Menopause and perimenopause?

Menopause is when a woman’s periods stop due to lower hormone levels. It usually affects women between the ages of 45 and 55, but it can happen earlier. Menopause can happen naturally or can be brought on by reasons such as surgery, cancer treatments, or because of genetics, with sometimes the reason being unknown.

Perimenopause is when a woman has symptoms of menopause, but their period has not stopped.

Menopause and perimenopause can cause symptoms like anxiety, mood swings, brain fog, hot flushes, and irregular periods. These symptoms can start years before a woman’s periods stop and can continue afterwards.

How can menopause affect job performance?

Menopause and perimenopause symptoms can have a significant impact on employees at work.

Up to a third of women will experience severe menopausal symptoms that can impact their quality of life. It is in the work context that women often report greater difficulty in managing symptoms and can feel embarrassed and unable to disclose their menopausal status, fearing they may be stigmatised for being menopausal.

Research conducted by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development found that 67% of working women between the ages of 40 and 60 with experience of menopausal symptoms said they have had a mostly negative impact on them at work. Of those who said they were negatively affected at work:

  • 79% said they were less able to concentrate
  • 68% said they experienced more stress
  • nearly half (49%) said they felt less patient with clients and colleagues and
  • 46% felt less physically able to carry out work tasks.

The most reported difficulties that menopausal women report at work include poor concentration, tiredness, poor memory, feeling low/depressed and lowered confidence. Problematic hot flushes at work have also been linked to women having a higher intention to leave the workforce.

What is an employer’s responsibility for menopause?

Women experiencing menopause symptoms can potentially be protected from direct and indirect discrimination, as well as from harassment and victimisation.

Under the Equality Act 2010, individuals are protected from discrimination, victimisation, and harassment based on protected characteristics. The protected characteristics employers need to be aware of are:

  • age
  • disability
  • gender reassignment
  • marriage or civil partnership (in employment only)
  • pregnancy and maternity
  • race
  • religion or belief and
  • sex

Menopause symptoms could be considered a disability if they have had a long term and substantial impact on an employee’s ability to carry out her normal day-to-day activities. If menopause symptoms do amount to a disability, an employer will be under a legal obligation to make reasonable adjustments and not discriminate against the employee. They will also be under a legal obligation to not directly or indirectly discriminate because of the disability or subject the employee to discrimination arising from disability.  In addition to disability discrimination, there is also the potential that if an employee is treated less favourably because of having menopause, it could also amount to unlawful sex and/or age discrimination.

Making workplace adjustments

In the UK, employers have a general legal duty to make a suitable and sufficient assessment of workplace risks to ensure the health and safety of their employees. This includes making adjustments for women who are experiencing menopausal symptoms. It will also help ensure an employee’s menopause symptoms are not being exacerbated by their job.

Risk assessments should consider the specific needs of menopausal women and ensure that the working environment will not make their symptoms worse. Often, making simple changes to the working environment can help to alleviate the impact of some symptoms. A risk assessment should look at issues such as:

  • temperature and ventilation
  • the materials used in any uniform or corporate clothing and
  • access to toilet facilities and access to cold water.

Minor changes to someone’s role or working environment can help ensure the menopause does not become a barrier to performance. Certain aspects of the job or workplace can become a barrier for someone experiencing menopausal symptoms. Where menopausal symptoms are sufficiently severe and long-standing to amount to a disability under the Equality Act, employers have a further responsibility to consider and put in place reasonable adjustments to alleviate or remove these barriers wherever possible, so that women experiencing symptoms can carry on performing in their role.

Employer policies, such as uniform policies, that disadvantage women experiencing menopausal symptoms could amount to indirect age, sex or disability discrimination. Introducing a menopause policy that outlines the support available and provides guidance to managers and colleagues will help ensure compliance with legal obligations, and it is good practice to widely communicate any policy to workers on a regular basis. Employers should also:

  • Provide rest areas, quiet rooms or flexible hours to help with sleeping difficulty.
  • Relax your uniform policies to allow women to wear cooler clothes, sufficient ventilation, cooling systems or fans to help with hot flushes.
  • Allow staff to work from home where reasonably possible where symptoms have flared up.
  • Make changes to shift patterns, such as by varying start and finish times, particularly on warmer days or when an employee has had a poor night’s sleep.
  • Record menopause-related absences separately from other types of absences so that employees are not penalised under any attendance management policy.
  • Have open conversations about menopause that involve all workers – this could include training, interactive learning sessions, informal chats with managers, and regular reminders of support available.

Adjustments can be physical, but they can also involve changes such as offering a more flexible working arrangement. Menopause affects people in different ways, but there are some practical steps you can take to make adjustments to support women experiencing menopause at work and help minimise some of the most common symptoms.

The costs of failing to make workplace adjustments for staff can run into hundreds of thousands of pounds when taking into account the loss of talent, higher sickness absences and the potential costs of defending a claim. Yet fulfilling legal obligations by making changes to the workplace and the working environment does not need to be difficult or costly. This will help you attract and retain valued and experienced workers.

Preventing discrimination

If an employee’s menopause symptoms amount to a disability under the Equality Act 2010, failing to make reasonable adjustments will amount to unlawful disability discrimination.

Menopause related absences should be recorded separately from other types of absences. If an employer were to take disciplinary action because of an employee’s menopausal-related absences, this could be viewed as unlawful discrimination, unless this can be objectively justified.

Equally, if an employer or colleagues were to use language that ridicules an employee because of their menopausal symptoms, this could be viewed as unlawful harassment related to age, sex and/or disability.

Next steps

In recent years, the public awareness of menopause on employees has increased, and the publishing of formal EHRC guidance on this issue underlines that employers are now expected to take positive steps to support employees with menopausal symptoms, and make adjustments to working practices and policies.  The further raising of the profile of such issues means that in turn the likelihood of employment tribunal claims being brought in connection with menopause has increased, which could result in costly litigation especially if any discrimination results in a loss of career, and who due to their age will face difficulties in finding new employment to mitigate any losses.

If you need advice on managing such issues in your workforce, or implementing a menopause at work policy, get in touch with our Employment Team for expert advice.

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