In July 2017, as part of research for my article on employing older workers, I came across an interesting suggestion in the Skills Commission Report, Spotlight on Lifelong learning for an Aging Workforce. I quote:-
“Following a suggestion from Baroness Altmann, age sensitivity training could also include menopause support and awareness. Such a move would help employers understand the support and provisions that can be made for women undergoing the menopause, and possibly lead to workplace adjustments.”
With nearly two thirds of women aged 50 to 64 now in work, that the menopause will affect most in their working life is a no brainer.
And a new research report by the Government Equalities Office, published in July 2017 has criticised employers for a lack of understanding and support.
The title of the research report ‘Menopause transition: effects on woman’s economic participation’ is hardly enlightening. Most employers are keenly aware that negative, gender based stereotyping is bad for business. But reading through the report, a number of issues stood out and the barriers to employers offering support are possibly not always down to a lack of willingness on their part, but also a lack of understanding as to how bad things can be, and general embarrassment round the whole issue.
Unfortunately very few women appear to feel empowered to speak confidently on it. I can’t blame them on this. As reported by Jane Feinmann’s article ‘How Professional Woman cope with the Menopause’ (published in the Telegraph on 14th March 2011), high-profile celebrities such as Oprah and Kim Cattrall may be “coming out” about the menopause; but new research reveals that “the change” is still something working women prefer to keep to themselves.
The 2016 survey by ITV’s Tonight programme suggested that up to 25% of women going through the menopause are considering leaving work because of their experience and that two-thirds believe they have no support at work. In my experience as an employment lawyer I can think of several examples where women have gone quietly, without much of a fuss.
I could not help noticing that the TUC reported, at a 2011 seminar for union representatives, several members gave accounts of supporting women in disciplinary cases based on poor performance or high sickness absence caused by their menopause transition symptoms.
Yet the whole issue is difficult to address directly when one of the coping strategies identified in the report was to hide or manage symptoms without notifying others. Apart from pregnancy, few other gender specific medical conditions are openly discussed in the workplace.
The Law and Menopause
There is very little case law around discrimination linked to menopausal symptoms. The first successful employment tribunal case was that of Merchant vs BT plc (ET/1401305/11, 27 February 2012). Ms Merchant explained, when disciplined for poor performance, 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.”
The Equality Act 2010’s defines several acts of unlawful discrimination including, in particular:
- Direct discrimination, that being discrimination because of a protected characteristic, treating someone less favourably than others because of the characteristic;
- Indirect discrimination, that being the application of a provision, criterion or practice which is discriminatory in relation to a relevant protected characteristic;
- Harassment, is unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic which has the purpose or effect of violating a person’s dignity and creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.
Sex is of course a protected characteristic and the menopause is gender specific. It will affect all women in varying degrees during the course of their working lives. That’s approximately half the working population, at some point.
There has to at some point be a cultural shift in all of our understanding, and ignorance is of course no defence in any claims of discrimination brought under the Equality Act 2010.
What are the symptoms of Menopause?
It is worth pointing out that not everyone is affected by extreme symptoms, some women are relatively unaffected. However, for those who do, the symptoms can be both fatiguing and overwhelming. Physical symptoms include 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, short term memory loss. The research report demonstrates the domino effect of these symptoms with one, such as night sweats and hot flushes leading to another, sleep deprivation.
What can be done in the workplace to help?
- Occupational health campaigns in workplaces to increase staff awareness of the difficulties women might face during transition and to challenge any negative stereotypes. This will of course only work if backed by management.
- If management is slightly embarrassed in tackling it, outside organisations could certainly be brought in to assist and start the awareness campaign.
- A sickness absence policy which accommodates women experiencing menopause transition. Again this kind of provision needs to be part of the kind of organisational culture discussed above, so it is regarded as no more unusual than a maternity leave policy.
- n open and supportive organisational cultures should also allow the provision of informal support for mid-life women during menopause transition. This can include women’s workplace networks, online discussion forums and helpline numbers . Difficult I would envisage in certain working environments, particularly those where any display of public weakness is met with ridicule.
And some immediate practical steps could be put into place in any culture, to the benefit of everyone, not only menopausal women:
- access to fans, good ventilation including windows which open and blinds that can be drawn;
- ability to control temperature via air conditioning or heating, again to alleviate difficulties caused by hot flushes;
- clean, well-equipped and comfortable toilet facilities near work stations, with appropriate sanitary disposal bins and feminine hygiene products, for women experiencing heavy or irregular periods or urinary incontinence;
- provision of cold drinking water, also to allow better management of hot flushes;
- lighter, non-synthetic workplace clothing or uniforms;
- access to female-only showers if possible, again because of hot flushes or heavy periods;
- a reduction of exposure to noise to help reduce fatigue;
- quiet workplace rest areas, so women in transition can relax when they need to.
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. And sadly most expressed doubt as to whether it would make any difference. I’m taking a pragmatic approach. 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.
For further information about the menopause, visit the British Menopause Society https://thebms.org.uk/