With nearly two thirds of women aged between 50 and 64 in work, the menopause is a huge issue facing employers. It will affect all women – that is almost half the current working population – in varying degrees during the course of their careers.
As a new report criticises businesses for a lack of understanding and support, employment specialist Amanda Okill, a Senior Associate at Kent law firm Furley Page, examines what more can be done.
There is no doubt that the menopause can affect women’s performance in the workplace, with a wide range of physical and psychological symptoms proving overwhelming to those who suffer the most extreme effects. While pregnancies – another female-only medical condition – have become a core feature of HR thinking, this is certainly not the case when it comes to helping women going through the menopause.
So how big a problem is it? A survey carried out last year suggests up to 25% of women going through the menopause are considering leaving work because of their experience, while two thirds believe they have no support at work. In my time as an employment lawyer, I can recall several examples of women handing in their notice without much of a fuss. With coping strategies such as ‘hide or manage symptoms without notifying others’, that’s hardly much of a surprise.
Some women are relatively unaffected, but those with extreme symptoms are likely to suffer from a reduced performance in the workplace. Physically, women can experience irregular and/or heavy periods, hot flushes, night sweats, sleep disturbances, headaches and weight gain. Psychological symptoms can include depression and anxiety, panic attacks, reduced stamina, vertigo and short-term memory loss.
With a general embarrassment surrounding the whole issue, this dip in effectiveness and/or high sickness absence due to menopause transition symptoms can lead to friction with the employer and even disciplinary hearings.
There is very little case law around discrimination linked to menopausal symptoms, with Merchant vs. BT plc (ET/1401305/11, 27 February 2012) being the first successful employment tribunal case brought under The Equality Act 2010.
Ms Merchant explained, when disciplined for poor performances, that she was “going through the menopause which could affect her level of concentration at times”. Her manager did not undertake any further investigations of her symptoms. The tribunal upheld her claims of direct sex discrimination and unfair dismissal, saying her manager would never have adopted this “bizarre and irrational approach with other non-female-related conditions”.
A new research report by the Government Equalities Office has criticised employers for a lack of understanding and support. Companies are keenly aware that negative, gender based stereotyping is bad for business, but there is great embarrassment around the issue of the menopause. As a result, there has to be a cultural shift in all of our understanding in the future.
What can be done?
Strategic measures could include occupational health campaigns backed by management, a menopause sickness absence policy which is no more unusual than maternity leave policy, and the provision of informal support for women during menopause transition.
More immediate practical steps which could be put into place in any office or workplace could include:
- Good ventilation and access to fans
- Ability to control temperature (air conditioning or windows that open)
- Clean, well-equipped and comfortable toilet facilities
- Provision of cold drinking water
- Lighter, non-synthetic workplace clothing or uniforms
- Access to female-only showers
- A reduction of exposure to noise, to help reduce fatigue
- Quiet workplace rest areas
In deciding whether to write on the issue, I have asked a few women what they think. Most were quick to jump in with a resounding “yes, someone has to say something about this,” but also expressed doubt as to whether it would make a difference. I would not expect to change the world, but if this article at least opens up a healthy debate, we are heading in the right direction.