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Talking about … the menopause and work - a closer look

Posted on 21 October 2022

October marks World Menopause Month. The purpose of World Menopause Month is to raise awareness of the menopause and options to improve the health and wellbeing of women in mid-life and beyond.

As mentioned in our introduction to this series last week, we are keen to get people talking about the menopause at work.

The menopause more generally, is a topic that – certainly in our experience – has been widely shied away from until relatively recently. In fact, the headline to this Article is perhaps not one that would have appeared just a few years ago. This of course doesn’t mean that the menopause wasn’t an issue previously. However what has changed of late, is that the issue has gained much more prominence in no small part due to media celebrities such as Davina McCall raising awareness of the specific issues faced by those experiencing the menopause.  And as the conversation opens up, the more we learn about the impact that the menopause can have on people at work. As this knowledge becomes clearer and more widely understood, the need for employers to understand what they should be doing now, to tackle these issues “head-on”, becomes more important than ever before.

This is the first of four articles that we intend to publish over the coming weeks.  In this article, we will be looking at the core of the issue. Specifically, we will be looking at what we mean by the menopause, who it effects, the types of issues it may raise in the workplace and very importantly, why this is such an important issue for employers.

So starting at the beginning:

What do we mean by the menopause and who is affected?

The menopause is a natural stage of life where menstruation stops. Officially, menopause is reached a year after someone’s last period.  However, the symptoms connected to the menopause often start many years before this (peri-menopause) and continue for many years afterwards (post-menopause). Where we talk about menopause it should properly include all three of these phases.

Menopausal symptoms typically start when someone is in the 40s and 50s with 51 being the average age of the menopause. Some though will experience it at an earlier age than this.

We should also remember that the menopause affects a wider category of people than perhaps you may initially think.  It not only impacts women but it also affects non-binary people and transgender men (that were born as a female). Menopausal symptoms can also affect transgender women undertaking hormone therapy.

We therefore recommend that when talking about the menopause, employers use gender-neutral language – by referring to menopausal employees. It is also recommended that any steps that an employer may take in connection with the menopause, be it to educate their workforce or implement measures to help alleviate the impact of the menopause, are aimed at all employees.

What impact can the menopause have at work?

There are over 50 symptoms connected to the menopause.  Some of these are relatively well-known (for example, hot flushes); others are less well-known (for example, breathing difficulties).

Of these 50 plus symptoms, different menopausal employees will experience different symptoms in differing degrees of severity at different stages of the menopause. Some may sail through this stage of life with little issue; others may find that it detrimentally impacts huge chunks of their home, work, family or social life.

Focussing specifically on a person’s work life, it is clear that menopausal symptoms can have a significant impact on this. For example, symptoms can potentially affect an employee’s performance – which in turn can have a direct impact on appraisals, salary and bonus decisions. Certain menopausal symptoms can potentially affect an employee’s conduct or behaviour at work. They can also impact an employee’s attendance at work and ultimately their desire or ability to remain in employment. All of these issues require careful handling when they arise. Failure to do so risks – amongst other things – a deterioration in employee relations; creating wider cultural issues which in turn could impact the stability of the workforce; and creating cost and wider-reputational issues if an employee challenges an employer’s action in the courts. For all of these reasons (and more), the menopause is clearly an issue that employers should understand and be concerned about.

Why is the menopause an issue for employers now?

The answer to this question is threefold in our view:

The fastest growing segment of the UK workforce is women over 50 – with around 4.5 million women in this segment. This represents a huge economic and social shift over recent years, and one which brings the current issue sharply into focus. Women in this bracket are a core part of not only an employer’s workforce, but also the wider labour market.  Employers therefore need to understand specific issues impacting this sector, to retain this talent and avoid making costly mistakes.

As the shrouds of secrecy start to be pulled back on this issue, more menopausal employees will hopefully have the confidence to start talking to their employers about the issues they are facing.  Line managers and HR will therefore need to know how to have conversations on the topic and understand what support they can and should be offering.

Litigation – the number of Employment Tribunal claims where menopause has been cited as a relevant issue, is still very low. That said, in the last five years or so, we have seen some key decisions in this area arising from the Tribunals (and we will cover this in a later article). This trend in our view, is likely to increase, not just because the number of menopausal employees in the labour force increases, but also because of the rise in prominence of this issue in society more widely.

We hope this has started the conversation for you. In our next article, we will cover the legal options currently available to menopausal employees when they believe they have suffered an adverse consequence because of, or arising out of, the menopause.

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