The Importance Of A Menopause Policy In The WorkplacePosted in : The Essential Elements of the Employee Handbook on 7 July 2021
Women now make up more than 50% of the UK labour market with a recent ONS survey showing that 72.2% of females aged 16-64 are employed.
Menopause is a natural part of the ageing process for women, caused by hormonal changes in the body, and the common symptoms can vary in their type and severity. Most commonly, women may suffer from:
- Hot flushes
- Night sweats and difficulty sleeping
- Low mood or anxiety
- Problems with memory loss and concentration
Most women will go through menopause between the age of 45 and 55 and can experience symptoms for a number of years. However, menopause can also impact on women of a younger age due to premature onset, or for medical or surgical reasons.
Therefore, it is inevitable that sections of the female working population will experience and suffer the symptoms of menopause in their working lives.
Despite this, menopause has not been seen as a workplace issue, and for many it can be the subject of worry and embarrassment at work. This has led to concerns that lack of understanding or inflexibility on the issue could push women out of the workplace altogether or see them missing out on training and promotion opportunities.
It is therefore important that as part of a wider strategy to retain and increase female participation in the workplace, employers develop an awareness of the impact that menopause can have, and create a culture of support and understanding on the subject of menopause. Developing a workplace policy can be the first step to achieving this.
What to include in a menopause policy?
As with most aspects of the Employee Handbook and policies, there is no “one size fits all” policy approach. Experiences of the menopause and its impact in the workplace can vary greatly from one person to another, and the potential support needed may also depend on your organisation and work environment. Developing a policy can be an opportunity to assess the potential impacts in your organisation and also gives you scope to tailor the support you offer to your organisation’s characteristics and culture.
Nevertheless, any good policy should at the very least outline your organisation’s principles and commitment to supporting employees, detail the objectives of the policy and outline who is responsible for the policy and who it applies to. We have set out below some of the other key components of the policy.
- A definition of menopause, perimenopause and associated symptoms can help with raising understanding in an organisation and should be included in your policy. If including symptoms it is important to recognise that there is no exhaustive list and that these can vary greatly between individuals.
- A statement of commitment to health and safety and recognition that adjustments may be needed. It is also a good idea to include provision in your policy for you to seek occupational health or medical advice to understand adjustments or support that may be needed. Including details in your policy of resources or support available, both within your organisation and externally, can also help.
- Points of contact should be clarified in the policy. This will ordinarily be the employee’s line manager. However, due to the sensitive nature of menopause it is also advisable to offer alternative points of contact should an employee feel uncomfortable discussing their symptoms with their line manager. If your organisation offers an employee support helpline, for example, you may wish to signpost this in your policy too.
Health & Safety
Employers have a legal obligation to assess and control health and safety risks in the workplace. By carrying out gender specific risk assessments and audits, employers can develop a greater understanding of how females going through menopause could be impacted in the workplace and within specific roles/teams.
That risk assessment can help to inform small practical adjustments that will promote the health, safety and well-being (physical and mental) of an employee going through menopause. This may include things that could help alleviate someone’s symptoms like providing a fan, ensuring an employee has a seat near a window that can be opened, or having easy access to cold drinking water. You may wish to include examples like these in your policy, recognising of course that there is no exhaustive list. Your policy should at least outline that you will carry out risk assessments and include details of how an employee can request support or adjustments they feel they may benefit from.
Interplay with other workplace policies and procedures
As part of the implementation of a menopause policy, employers should give some consideration to what other existing policies and practices could impact on a woman suffering from menopause. The menopause policy should speak to those other policies in the same way as the equal opportunities and anti-bullying and harassment policies.
For example, could dress code policies be challenging for someone experiencing menopause symptoms, and if so, who can they speak to about providing support? Do break procedures prevent flexibility to manage symptoms?
Equality proofing workplace policies and procedures will ensure that policies are fairly applied, and if implemented correctly could ultimately protect an employer faced with a discrimination complaint.
There have been few reported cases on menopause related matters, but the following first instance decisions, although not binding, illustrate the potential exposure to liability and financial penalties for employers who have failed to appropriately take account of the effect of menopause.
- Sex Discrimination
In Merchant v BT Plc ET/140135/11 an employee who was dismissed for capability reasons was successful in her claim for direct sex discrimination and unfair dismissal. Her employer had been made aware that her concentration could be affected at times by menopause, however, despite medical evidence provided by the Claimant, the dismissing manager formed the view that no further investigations was necessary. In evidence, the dismissing manager admitted that it would be normal before dismissing an employee for underperformance to obtain medical evidence to ensure that any health problems were understood. However, in this case he did not carry out further medical investigation and instead relied on experience of his wife and another colleague’s menopause.
Upholding the direct sex discrimination claim, the ET found that menopausal issues had not been taken seriously, and the dismissing manager, “… did not consider this female specific problem to be comparable to other health issues.”
In the judgement the ET noted that the dismissing manager had made improper and generalised assumptions about menopause without taking any account of the particular problems the claimant was experiencing, and making such assumptions was less favourable treatment.
- Disability discrimination
Whilst more unusual, if serious menopause symptoms are found to amount to a mental or physical impairment which has a long-term impact on a person’s ability to carry out day-to-day activities, they will obtain protection under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, and the employer duty to make reasonable adjustments will be triggered.
In Davies v Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service ETS/4104575/2017 the tribunal found an employee’s dismissal for misconduct was linked to disability in that the claimant’s menopause caused her to suffer memory problems and anxiety. This had resulted in the claimant mistakenly advising two individuals in the court where she worked that they may have drunk water containing her medication. The incident had sparked a health & safety investigation which led to the claimant being dismissed for gross misconduct. Upholding the unfair dismissal claim, the respondent was also ordered to re-instate the claimant into her role. In addition to sums awarded in respect of backdated pay, the Tribunal ordered the respondent to pay £5,000 for injury to feelings.
N.B. the Davies case is illustrative of the potential for symptoms of menopause to amount to a disability. However, that particular case deals with a complaint of discrimination arising from disability, under section 15 of the Equality Act for which readers should note there is no similar provision in our Northern Ireland disability legislation.
An employee suffering from menopause may experience increased levels of absence which should be handled sensitively and sympathetically. Workplace absence procedures should reflect that menopause may be a long-term and changing condition.
The strict application of absence management triggers could have a disadvantageous impact on a woman suffering from the effects of menopause. It may therefore be necessary to take advice from occupational health and consider adjustments to trigger points or discounting menopause related absence.
Also through the exploration of the reasons for absence with the employee, other potential adjustments such as temporary changes to working patterns, role responsibilities, or increased flexibility, including allowing the employee to work more often from home, could act to reduce absence levels and provide the necessary support to the employee.
The best practice guidance we shared in our previous feature on management of short term sickness absence can also provide some useful insight into handling return to work interviews and engagement with occupational health in the context of managing menopause related absences.
As with almost all policies and procedures we discuss, developing a written policy is not enough. Training line managers and HR teams to notice the signs of menopause and handle any conversations sensitively will help create an environment where employees feel they can ask for support. Managers should be encouraged to be open to, and flexible about, exploring options with employees on how they can help to alleviate the symptoms and support the employee whilst they are in work.
The increased focus on the need to tackle the effects of menopause in the workplace is to be welcomed. Increased discussion, including at government level, about positive employment strategies and implementation of policies to support menopausal females can greatly help to:
- remove the taboo nature of the subject,
- create a more welcoming and friendly environment for women to share their experiences; and
- prevent the loss of valuable female talent from the labour market.
The information in this article is provided as part of Legal-Island's Employment Law Hub. We regret we are not able to respond to requests for specific legal or HR queries and recommend that professional advice is obtained before relying on information supplied anywhere within this article.