In July 2022, the cross-party women and equalities committee recommended that menopause should become a protected characteristic under the Equality Act. This proposal, however, was rejected by the government who warned that doing so may “inadvertently cause new forms of discrimination, for example, discrimination risks towards men suffering from long-term medical conditions.”
While menopause is not likely to become a protected characteristic any time soon, it is important for employers to support women and prevent them from leaving the workforce. In this article, we’ll look at key areas of employment law that may relate to the perimenopause and the menopause, as well as share tips to help employers support women through the menopause in the workplace..
What is the menopause?
The menopause is a natural biological process that marks the end of a woman's reproductive years.
The menopausal transition includes stages such as perimenopause, which is the period leading up to menopause when hormonal fluctuations and symptoms may begin. Menopausal symptoms can vary widely and may include hot flashes, night sweats, sleep disturbances, mood swings, cognitive changes, and changes in bone density.
Menopause is a significant life stage that, for some women, brings physical and emotional changes. While it is a natural part of aging, the experience varies among individuals. Some women may go through it with few, or very little, symptoms, while others may experience more challenging physical and emotional adjustments.
Who is affected by the menopause?
The menopause primarily affects women in their late 40s to early 50s, but the age at which menopause occurs can vary. Spontaneous early menopause affects approximately 5% of the population before the age of 45.
While menopause is a biological phenomenon specific to women, its effects can extend to those in close personal or professional relationships. Family members, partners, and colleagues may be indirectly impacted by changes in mood, energy levels, and overall well-being experienced by women going through menopause.
In the workplace, employers and coworkers may also be affected if women experiencing menopausal symptoms require accommodations or support. Creating an understanding and supportive environment can contribute to the well-being of women going through this life stage.
Is menopause covered under the Equality Act?
While the menopause isn’t a protected characteristic, it does relate to the Equality Act. Specifically, if an employee or worker is discriminated against because of symptoms caused by the menopause, it could fall under:
Discrimination due to the menopause that could be considered age discrimination might involve treating individuals differently or unfairly based on their age-related experiences during this life stage.
For instance, if an employer targets and treats older women negatively due to symptoms related to the menopause, it could be viewed as age discrimination.
Discrimination related to early menopause could also potentially be considered age discrimination. Early menopause, which occurs before the age of 45, is still an age-related characteristic. If individuals experiencing early menopause face unfair treatment, bullying, or discrimination in the workplace due to their symptoms or circumstances, it could also be viewed as age discrimination.
Discrimination related to the menopause may be considered disability discrimination if the symptoms experienced by an individual are severe enough to meet the legal definition of a disability. In the UK, disability is defined under the Equality Act 2010 as 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.
For instance, if a woman going through menopause experiences severe symptoms that significantly impact her ability to perform her job or participate in daily activities, and her employer treats her less favoyrably as a result, it could be considered disability discrimination. The key factor is whether the symptoms have a substantial and long-term adverse effect on her normal day-to-day activities, bringing them within the legal definition of a disability.
Gender Reassignment Discrimination
Discrimination related to the menopause could be associated with gender reassignment discrimination if an employer treats an individual less favourably because they are undergoing or have undergone gender reassignment, including medical procedures or social transitioning.
For example, if a transgender woman who has undergone gender reassignment faces discrimination due to menopausal symptoms, such as being subjected to derogatory comments or unequal treatment compared to other employees, it may be considered a form of gender reassignment discrimination. In this case, the mistreatment is based on the intersection of gender identity and menopausal status, highlighting the importance of addressing discrimination comprehensively and recognising the unique challenges individuals may face at the intersection of different protected characteristics.
Discrimination due to the menopause may be considered sex discrimination if individuals are treated unfairly solely because they are women experiencing menopausal symptoms. In this context, sex discrimination occurs when individuals are treated less favorably due to their gender or a gender-related characteristic, including circumstances related to biological differences between men and women.
For instance, if an employer, based solely on a woman's menopausal status, subjects her to unequal treatment, denies her opportunities, or makes derogatory comments, it could be viewed as sex discrimination.
Menopause and The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974
The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 in the UK places a duty on employers to ensure the health, safety, and welfare of their employees while at work. While the Act doesn't outright mention menopause, it is relevant in the context of workplace health and safety because menopausal symptoms can impact an individual's well-being and ability to work effectively.
Employers have a general responsibility to assess and manage risks to the health and safety of their employees. This includes recognising and addressing factors that may affect the health and well-being of female employees going through the menopause.
Some menopausal symptoms, such as hot flashes, fatigue, or difficulty concentrating, could potentially impact a person's ability to perform certain tasks or operate in specific work environments.
As a result, employers should take steps to create a supportive and inclusive workplace environment, considering the diverse health needs of their employees. This may involve providing reasonable adjustments or accommodations for individuals experiencing menopausal symptoms.
How can menopause affect an employee’s ability to work?
Menopause can affect an employee's work in various ways, as the associated symptoms may impact physical and emotional well-being. Here are some common ways menopause can influence an employee's work:
Menopausal symptoms, such as hot flashes, night sweats, and fatigue, can affect sleep quality, causing tiredness and difficulty concentrating during working hours.
Some women may experience cognitive changes, including memory lapses and difficulty concentrating, which can impact their ability to perform certain tasks or maintain focus at work.
Hormonal fluctuations during menopause can contribute to mood swings, anxiety, or irritability. These emotional changes may affect interpersonal relationships with colleagues and clients.
Severe menopausal symptoms can lead to increased absenteeism if employees need to take time off work to manage their health or seek medical advice.
The combination of physical and emotional symptoms may reduce overall productivity, as employees may need more time to complete tasks or may struggle to perform at their usual capacity.
Menopausal symptoms can impact an employee's overall job satisfaction and well-being. If the workplace is not supportive, it may contribute to feelings of stress or dissatisfaction.
Women experiencing menopause may face challenges in career advancement if their symptoms are not understood or accommodated by the workplace.
Can employees take time off for menopause?
Yes, employees experiencing menopause are entitled to take time off work if necessary. This may be covered by sick leave, and employers should treat menopause-related absences sympathetically, recognising them as valid reasons for leave. Open, honest communication between employees and employers ensures a supportive and understanding approach.
What are reasonable adjustments for menopause?
Reasonable adjustments for menopause in the workplace can include flexible working hours, changes to working conditions, provision of fans or temperature control, and considerations for privacy and rest facilities.
Employers should engage in open conversations with affected employees to determine personalised adjustments that address specific needs, fostering a supportive and inclusive working environment.
How can employers support employees experiencing menopause?
Employers can provide valuable support to employees experiencing menopause by implementing the following measures:
Raise Awareness: Promote awareness and understanding of menopause in the workplace. This can be achieved through workshops, training sessions, or informational materials.
Flexible Working Arrangements: Offer flexible working hours or remote work options to accommodate the varying needs and challenges associated with menopause.
Open Communication Channels: Encourage open communication between employees and managers. Create a culture where employees feel comfortable discussing their needs and concerns related to menopause.
Create a Comfortable Environment: Ensure the workplace is comfortable, considering factors such as temperature control, adequate ventilation, and access to private spaces.
Provide Information and Resources: Supply educational materials about menopause, its symptoms, and available support. This can be through intranet resources, pamphlets, or guest speakers.
Offer Health and Well-being Programs: Include menopause-specific initiatives within broader health and well-being programs. This can cover physical and mental health aspects related to menopause.
Training for Managers: Provide training for managers on how to support employees going through menopause. This includes recognising symptoms, handling related issues sensitively, and facilitating necessary adjustments.
Flexible Leave Policies: Consider implementing flexible leave policies that allow employees to take time off when needed without facing undue pressure or stigma.
Employee Assistance Programs: Offer access to employee assistance programs that provide confidential support services, including counselling, to help employees manage the emotional and psychological aspects of menopause.
By taking these steps, employers can contribute to a more inclusive and supportive workplace for employees navigating the challenges associated with menopause.
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Recognising and addressing the impact of menopause in the workplace is a vital step toward creating an inclusive and supportive environment. By implementing these measures, employers can foster a workplace culture that values the well-being of all employees, regardless of age or gender.
Supporting individuals through menopause is not just a legal obligation but a commitment to ensuring the overall health and happiness of the workforce. As we collectively strive for diversity and inclusivity, understanding and accommodating the needs of employees experiencing menopause contribute to a more compassionate and empathetic workplace.
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