The 18 October was World Menopause Day, so it's fitting that October also saw an interesting Employment Tribunal case on menopause symptoms in the workplace as well as press coverage on how employers handle the issue in practice. A survey by the Menopause Charity suggests that around 10% of menopausal women in work leave their jobs as a result of their symptoms, with many more considering leaving. That's a huge waste of experienced staff - a problem for employers at any time, but particularly now when many businesses are struggling to retain and attract staff. So what are the issues and what can employers do to support menopausal staff and prevent attrition?
The recent case (brought by a local council employee) indicates the type of symptoms which employers need to consider. The claimant had suffered from the effects of the menopause for two years, including insomnia, light-headedness, confusion, stress, depression, anxiety, palpitations, memory loss, migraines and hot flushes. She was receiving hormone replacement therapy. After a period of difficulty at work, she resigned and brought claims for sex discrimination, disability discrimination and constructive dismissal. Although the Employment Tribunal struck out her claim for disability discrimination on the basis that her symptoms did not amount to a disability, the Employment Appeal Tribunal upheld her appeal against that decision. Although not every woman's symptoms of menopause will meet the legal definition of disability, for many women the symptoms will be substantial enough to meet that threshold. For those who are, their employers need to consider their duty to make reasonable adjustments. Even where an employee isn't disabled, failing to make reasonable accommodations could well result in a constructive unfair dismissal claim.
So what sort of adjustments might be needed? To take one example, hot flushes aren't just a punchline for sexist jokes, they can be physically debilitating and extremely unpleasant. Employers can ease the symptoms by providing fans or other temperature controls, and employers with uniforms should be flexible about uniforms for menopausal staff. In fact, flexibility is the key here - in respect of working hours and location, temporary changes to duties, rest breaks and support. Employers should seek to be as flexible as possible, given that these needs will likely be temporary.
Of course, employees will only be willing to open up about their symptoms and seek support if they feel confident that they will be taken seriously and treated fairly, Employers should consider introducing a specific Menopause Policy and ensuring that managers and HR teams are properly trained on it, to ensure that managers know how to handle conversations about menopause sensitively and are able to suggest workable solutions. We're also seeing many employers taking steps to educate their workforces generally about menopause symptoms, to reduce stigma and encourage a more considerate approach.
With around 80% of women experiencing menopause while working, coy embarrassment about 'women's issues' isn't an option for employers looking to build an inclusive workplace. It's time for a change.