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How should I support employees going through the menopause at work?

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In the UK alone, there are around nine million women aged between 40 and 60 who could be experiencing symptoms of menopause or perimenopause (menopause transition). Three and a half million of these women are employees over 50 with a wealth of experience and skills to offer, but how is the menopause and the associated symptoms dealt with in the workplace? While perimenopause and the menopause are not specifically protected by law, as an employer, you should make every effort to support your employees in this situation. In this article, our Employment team detail how you can support employees going through the menopause and what symptoms they may experience, what the law says about the menopause, and how to manage the general workforce when making adjustments.

What are the symptoms of the menopause?

Symptoms of the menopause can include:

  • Hot flushes,
  • Night sweats,
  • Difficulty sleeping,
  • Problems with memory and concentration,
  • Headaches,
  • Mood changes including low mood or anxiety,
  • Heart palpitations,
  • Joint stiffness,
  • Aches and pains,
  • Reduced muscle mass,
  • Recurrent urinary tract infections.

These symptoms can impact women in the workplace in multiple ways, and could lead to them taking long-term sickness absence, losing confidence in their ability to do their job, suffering from mental health conditions such as stress, anxiety and depression or they could even leave their job completely.

Currently, around one in eight people in the British workforce are women over 50, and by 2022 it is predicted that number will change to around one in six. As an employer, if you address the effects of the menopause it could lead to better retention of current staff, but it could also lead to improved success in recruitment.

What can I do to support my staff going through the menopause?

There are many ways you can support your employees going through perimenopause or the menopause and comply with the law. One of which is to consider having a workplace menopause or wellbeing champion. This person could be a contact for workers and managers who need advice or someone to talk to. A workplace menopause or wellbeing champion could:

  • Run workshops to raise awareness among workers and managers,
  • Notify all staff that you are supportive of workers experiencing the menopause through posters, fliers or email etc,
  • Check that suitable health and safety risk assessments are carried out,
  • Set up a support network for staff,
  • Explain where staff can find more information about how to help colleagues experiencing the condition, as well as how to talk about the menopause.

Should I offer training to my staff about the menopause?

Another way to support your workforce would be through relevant training. Your managers may find it difficult to talk to a worker experiencing the symptoms if they have not received training on how to have sensitive conversations. The training should also remind the manager not to be discriminatory and teach them to understand the range of menopause and perimenopause symptoms and their effects. Any conversations that managers do have should be confidential, friendly and honest.

Your managers should also understand any menopause and perimenopause at work policies your business may have, their individual role and the available support and adjustments they can offer. A menopause policy is an opportunity to set out what the business can offer in terms of support and the processes it will follow.

You should also educate your entire workforce about the menopause, not just your managers, to understand and address the stigma surrounding the menopause. Over time, this will also change the culture around female health in general.

When you are making changes to support a worker going through the menopause or perimenopause, you may find that others could complain that the worker is being treated more favourably, particularly where the worker is given extra breaks or flexibility over start and finish times.

You should remember that you agreed the changes because the worker is experiencing the menopause or perimenopause and the changes are to support them through the health change. This does not mean the changes should be automatically made for other members of the workforce.

If the situation does arise, you should deal with it delicately and respect the privacy of the worker experiencing the menopause or perimenopause. You should not be drawn into giving information or details you have agreed to keep confidential.

Do I have to carry out risk assessments for those going through the menopause?

You have obligations under The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. You must, where reasonably practical, ensure health, safety and welfare at work and in the workplace. You can support employees experiencing perimenopause and menopause by carrying out a risk assessment which should, for example, include:

  • The workplace temperature and ventilation,
  • The materials used in an employee’s uniform, if applicable, because the uniform might make a worker experiencing the perimenopause or menopause feel too hot or worsen a skin irritation,
  • Somewhere suitable for the worker to rest,
  • Whether toilet and washroom facilities are easily available,
  • Whether cold drinking water is easily available.

How should I manage an employee absent from work due to the menopause?  

Knowing that any absences from work related to the menopause will be treated sympathetically is another way to make your workforce feel supported. You should record absences which are related to perimenopause or menopausal symptoms separately to other absences as there may be times when it could be unfair or discriminatory to measure menopause-related absence as part of the worker's overall attendance record.

 As it is a long-term, fluctuating health change, you should also be prepared to make changes that will help the worker avoid absence, continue to do their work, and minimise, reduce or remove obstacles that may result in a decline in their job performance due to their symptoms.

In Employment Tribunals (ETs), menopause symptoms have been accepted as a disability. Consequently, it is advisable, and is good practice, for you to consider making changes and allowing your workers a reasonable amount of time to adjust where they are experiencing perimenopause or menopausal symptoms.

How should I make changes and adjustments?

Making changes or adjustments for a worker going through perimenopause or menopause can be the most effective way to support them. You should agree any changes or adjustments made with them in writing and carry out follow-up discussions to make sure the changes are working for both parties. This is important because symptoms can fluctuate and/or change and so the adjustments at work may also need to change.

You could, for example:

  • Provide fans,
  • Allow the worker to take breaks when needed,
  • Provide a private area where the worker can rest,
  • Move their desk close to a window that opens,
  • Be flexible where possible over the worker's start and finish times,
  • Allow them to work from home when practical,
  • Allow the worker time off if they cannot carry on working that day.

Alternatively, both you and the worker might discuss and agree other changes which should be reviewed if the worker's symptoms alter. For example:

  • Changing some of the worker’s duties,
  • The worker changing to a more suitable role,
  • The worker going part-time or switching to a job share.

It is good practice for you to allow a worker to go to medical appointments, including appointments about menopausal or perimenopause symptoms. However, there is no right in law for time off, but the worker may have a right to paid or unpaid time off in their terms and conditions of employment.

What does the law say about the menopause?

The Equality Act 2010 protects workers against discrimination and although menopause and perimenopause are not specifically protected, if a worker is treated unfairly because of either the menopause or perimenopause, this may amount to discrimination due to their sex and/or a disability, and/or their age.

Sex discrimination is defined as any unfair treatment of a worker because of their sex. This could occur if, when considering a drop in performance, you treated a female worker’s menopause symptoms less seriously than a male worker's health condition.

Any unwanted comments or jokes about a woman's menopause or perimenopause symptoms should also be a cause for concern, as they could amount to harassment, or sexual harassment depending on the particular unwanted behaviour.

Is the menopause treated as a disability?

In an ET, a worker’s menopause or perimenopause symptoms could be ruled to be a disability. If a worker has a disability, you must consider making 'reasonable adjustments' to reduce or remove any disadvantages the worker experiences because of the disability. Workers are also protected where they are treated unfairly, not because of their disability, but because of something linked to it. For example, if a worker was dismissed because they forgot to complete a task, but they have become forgetful and confused as a result of anxiety caused by their menopause; their anxiety would need to meet the definition of disability in the Equality Act.

Workers are also protected against unfair treatment because of their age. The protection will include unfair treatment of workers because perimenopause or menopause usually begins in the mid-forties to early fifties.

Managing the menopause at work can be a sensitive and delicate topic that, if handled poorly, could result in a claim against your business, as it did in the case of Davies v Scottish Courts and Tribunal Service, which you can read about here. If you have a question about how to support employees going through the menopause, or would like advice on making reasonable adjustments for an employee, you can contact our Employment team by calling 023 8071 7717 or emailing employment@warnergoodman.co.uk.