As the population in general gets older, employers are having to deal with many issues linked to having an older workforce. One of these issues is the menopause and the difficulties it can cause for staff who are going through it.
Employers have typically been slow to recognise the issues faced by menopausal women, and many women feel uncomfortable discussing it, as it is often seen as a taboo subject. However, acknowledging these difficulties and assisting women to remain in work in spite of them, will be a significant factor in retaining female staff in this age bracket. Retention of experienced staff (whatever gender) is vital in avoiding the loss of key skills and experience from the organisation. Retention of older female staff can also have benefits in addressing the gender pay gap.
Menopause: the facts
The menopause is a natural stage of life for women, usually in their late forties/early fifties, although it can also happen earlier or later. Part of the process includes the “perimenopause” which is when a woman's body is starting to change.
There are many symptoms of the menopause including: hot flushes; difficulty sleeping and night sweats; feeling tired and lacking energy; mood swings; anxiety and panic attacks; difficulty concentrating and focussing; and migraines and other aches and pains.
It is important to note that the menopause affects every woman differently both emotionally and physically. The impact it has on an individual’s health can affect how they work, their relationships with colleagues and has knock-on effects on absence and productivity.
Menopause: the law
The menopause and perimenopause are not specifically protected under the Equality Act 2010. However, if a worker is treated unfairly because of the menopause or perimenopause, this could amount to discrimination because of, for example, their sex; a disability; and/or their age.
- Sex discrimination - Unfair treatment of a worker because of their sex could lead to a discrimination claim, for example if an employer treats a woman's menopause or perimenopause symptoms less seriously than it would a male worker's health condition when considering a drop in job performance.
- Disability discrimination - A disability is a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on a person’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. This is a broad definition and a worker's menopause or perimenopause could potentially be regarded as a disability by an employment tribunal. If a worker has a disability, an employer must consider making changes to reduce or remove any disadvantages the worker experiences because of it (i.e. reasonable adjustments).
- Age discrimination - Workers are protected against unfair treatment because of their age. This may include unfair treatment of workers because thy are going through the perimenopause or menopause.
In addition, the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 says an employer must, where reasonably practical, ensure health, safety and welfare at work. An employer must minimise, reduce or where possible remove workplace health and safety risks for workers. This will involve carrying out a health and safety risk assessment with a view to ensuring menopausal symptoms are not made worse by the workplace and/or its work practices, and making changes to help a worker manage their symptoms when doing their job.
So what should employers do?
Apart from the obvious benefit of avoiding tribunal claims, as we have seen, there are very good business reasons for proactively managing an older, female workforce.
There are a number of steps that employers can take to assist women. Not only will these demonstrate that your organisation is an understanding employer, but they will also assist in showing that you have made reasonable adjustments, should an employment tribunal claim be brought.
- It is sensible to have a clear policy that deals with the menopause, and sets out how the organisation supports women. This will show employees that you have a positive attitude to the issue, and will give managers guidance on how to deal with the any problems that arise.
- Employers may also want to consider highlighting the menopause as part of a wider occupational health awareness campaign. Again, this will indicate to staff that you are sensitive to the issue, and that it is not something they should feel embarrassed about. Consider also having a menopause wellbeing champion in your workplace.
- Women should be given information on how they can get support for any issues resulting from the menopause. Many women will feel uncomfortable going to their line manager, especially if it is a man, and other options should be available.
- Risk assessments should consider the specific needs of menopausal women and ensure the working environment will not make their symptoms worse. If individuals are working from home it may be necessary to consider if that environment is suitable too (see our specific guidance on working from home).
- Employers should ensure that all line managers are trained to understand how the menopause can affect work and what adjustments may be necessary to support women.
- Managers should carefully manage any drop in job performance or sickness absence caused by the menopause or perimenopause, ensuring that any such absences are recorded separately.
- Working arrangements should be flexible enough to ensure they meet the requirements of menopausal women, who may need to leave suddenly or need more breaks during the day. Consider flexible working hours or shift changes. If sleep is disturbed, later start times might also be helpful.
- Depending on the workplace and the nature of the work, a number of practical steps could be taken to assist women such as:
- reviewing workplace temperatures and ventilation, providing a desktop fan, or locating a workstation near a window or away from a heat source;
- providing access to drinking water in all work situations, including off site venues;
- ensuring there is access to wash room facilities/ showers, including when travelling or working in temporary locations; and
- offering flexibility on uniforms, such as allowing women to remove jackets or providing lighter, non-synthetic workplace clothing or uniforms.
To conclude, this is an important issue that should not be ignored. All employers should be asking themselves what steps they are taking to support women going through the menopause, and whether there is anything else that they could do.
We will continue to update this guide as and when new information becomes available. If you have any queries on the Job Support Scheme, or need any guidance or support, please speak to a member of your local employment team.
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