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Menopause and the workplace – a hot topic

There's been many a joke made about the menopause, but when it comes to the workplace, it really is no laughing matter.

A recent study by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) in Wales of almost 4,000 people found that 88% of women workers who experienced the menopause felt it had an effect on working life, while around six in ten had witnessed the issue being treated as a joke.

It also showed that just a handful of workplaces had policies in place to support women who experienced difficulties during the menopause.

Employment Tribunals

In the last six years, two significant cases involving the menopause have ended up in Employment Tribunals, with more believed to be in the pipeline:

  • Davies v Scottish Courts and Tribunal Service (2018) - A woman suffering an array of menopausal symptoms was dismissed after two men drank some water which could have, but didn't, contain her medication after she left her desk unattended. The tribunal ruled she had been unfairly dismissed and, importantly, subjected to disability discrimination under the Equality Act 2010. It ordered that she be reinstated to her post and paid £14,000 in compensation for lost earnings and £5,000 for injury to feelings.
  • Merchant vs BT (2012) - Ms Merchant suffered difficult menopause symptoms which affected her performance at work. She was supported by her GP but was dismissed from her job. The tribunal heard that her line manager relied on his wife's experience of the menopause and his own beliefs rather than considering the impact of the menopause in Ms Merchant's case or seeking further expert opinion. It upheld her claim on the basis that the manager wouldn't have approached a non-female related condition in the same way and would have treated a man suffering with the same symptoms - stress and poor concentration - differently.

Powerful symptoms

The average age of the menopause is 51 with about 80% of women experiencing symptoms including hot flushes, anxiety, insomnia, problems with concentration, memory and low mood for around four years. For 10% of women, these symptoms last up to 12 years.

With around 3.5 million women in the workplace aged over 50 and with studies showing that menopause symptoms can have a major impact on both attendance and performance, there have been widespread calls for a change in attitude from employers.

What should employers be doing?

Taking care of the health, safety and welfare of all employees is paramount - and that includes menopausal women who may require additional support to get them through what can be an immensely challenging time.

The legal risks of not doing so, include claims of unfair dismissal and unlawful discrimination in the employment tribunal.

Steps to consider include:

  • Remembering that although the menopause is a natural phase in a woman's life, for some it has debilitating symptoms that must, from a legal point of view, be looked on as a disability;
  • Cultivating an open atmosphere in which women feel they can discuss the menopause and its symptoms and any problems they are experiencing - something that research shows many find difficult and embarrassing;
  • Making sure all employees have an understanding of the menopause and how it can affect people - research shows there is widespread ignorance among managers;
  • Being open to making reasonable adjustments that may make working life easier like providing fans, access to cold water, fresh air or giving different uniform options if one has to be worn;
  • Working with occupational health specialists to identify any other reasonable adjustments that might make life easier for menopausal women;
  • Offering flexibility - for example, later start times for someone whose sleep is being disturbed and adjusting performance management and sick leave policies;
  • Being understanding about the menopause and how it might affect an employee's ability to do their job including, if necessary, obtaining medical evidence.

For help and guidance about this area of the law, please contact Wards Solicitors' Employment Law Consultant Solicitor, Julia Beasley.