Menopause support shelved by government: Employers are not off the hookby
The proposal to introduce 'menopause leave' in England may have been rejected by ministers but this doesn’t mean employers can ignore menopause. Employers should remember that affected employees are still covered under existing characteristics.
The conversation around menopause has been heating up for some time now. But recent developments in this area – or lack thereof – in Parliament have led to claims that governmental progress has been ‘glacial’…
Cast your minds back to July 2022. The Women and Equalities Committee, spearheaded by Conservative MP Caroline Nokes, proposed a pilot scheme to introduce Menopause Leave policies in the workplace.
They also suggested the Government should consider making menopause a protected characteristic under the Equalities Act 2010, giving it the same protections as sex, age, disability, and race. These proposals certainly had legs, especially with the increased media attention thrust upon the condition over the last year.
However, the government dismissed these proposals, hailing them "counterproductive" and claiming it could “cause discrimination against men with long-term medical conditions.” This has been met with a frosty reception by campaigners and many women, who feel that menopause support is being swept under the carpet again.
This decision does not mean that employers can ignore menopause.
Menopause has become mainstream in recent months, with celebrities including Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Angelina Jolie sharing their experiences. Davina McCall’s Channel 4 documentary “Sex, Myths and the Menopause” attracted more than 2 million viewers and resulted in 22,000 GPs and nurses volunteering to complete a six-hour menopause course.
The programme was praised for its unapologetic exploration of the myriad mental and physical symptoms of menopause, including lesser-known and often misunderstood symptoms such as memory loss and brain fog.
And it’s not just celebrities who have been at the centre of the conversation; menopause has been quite the talking point in the courts too. Employment tribunals citing menopause increased by 40% in 2021 - we expect to see it will rise again once the 2022 figures are released.
Despite not amending legislation, the government does seem to recognise the need for menopause support. But it is actively “encouraging employers to implement workplace menopause policies and other forms of support such as flexible working, which can play a vital role in supporting people to remain in work."
Menopause symptoms can be uncomfortable and isolating. And not everyone wants to talk about it.
Menopause must not be ignored
Menopause is not going away, but employers will need to take matters into their own hands when it comes to supporting affected staff, without government-set legislation to guide them.
But you may ask, if the government won’t offer menopause support, then why should I as an employer?
Well, employers have a duty to do all they reasonably can to support their employees' health, safety, and wellbeing. And this, of course, extends to health conditions – including menopause.
We’ve already established that the government will not recognise menopause as a standalone protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010. But employees do still have protections under the existing nine protected characteristics. Think age, sex, disability etc.
this could amount to sex discrimination
How is menopause protected?
While menopause itself may not be classed as a disability, if the symptoms are severe enough to cause a substantial and long-term adverse effect on the employee’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities, then they can amount to disability as with any other health condition.
Then if you consider that menopause affects only women and those assigned female at birth, if an employer was to place an employee at a disadvantage because of menopause – or another gender-specific health issue such as endometriosis, menstruation, pregnancy, etc. - this could amount to sex discrimination.
Whilst protecting your business from claims is critical, retaining talent is another necessity. Menopause symptoms can be uncomfortable and isolating. And not everyone wants to talk about it.
Impact and effective policy
A recent survey by British Menopause Society found that almost one in two women (43%) felt that menopause had a negative impact on their work. So maybe it’s to be expected that nearly one million workers in the UK have quit their jobs because of menopause – that’s around one in 10.
For employers to be able to keep employees in work, protect their business from resignations, and break the stigma around menopause, it’s essential to introduce a menopause policy. It’s unfortunate that over half of employers still lack relevant policies in this area.
It’s time for employers to act.
An effective menopause policy should outline:
- What menopause is, and its symptoms
- Legal protections
- Reasonable adjustments:
- The workplace environment, i.e., is there easy access to toilet facilities, is the area well ventilated?
- Uniform, i.e.is it comfortable?
- The role, i.e., are the role expectations putting too much physical or mental pressure on the impacted employee?
- Flexible working, ie, would reduced hours or from home alleviate issues faced?
- How sickness pay is calculated for menopause-related illness.
- What additional support measures are offered, like an entitlement to specific menopause leave, or access to an employee assistance programme
Employers need to step up
Though specific menopause leave won’t be trialled as part of a government-backed scheme, there’s nothing to stop employers from introducing this as a contractual entitlement for their impacted staff.
And while this may be a real source of support for staff that suffer from extreme symptoms, bear in mind that for others, offering more flexible working arrangements – like amending hours or changing work location - so that employees don’t have to forego pay at a time when finances are stretched like never before might be preferable.
Speaking of absence, discounting any periods of menopause-related absence from disciplinary procedures will ensure that someone going through menopause is not penalised for taking time off.
Heaping menopause support onto the ever-growing list of responsibilities for employers might seem like another impossible task right now. But it doesn’t have to be overwhelming.
Simply introducing a policy and establishing a two-way dialogue will go a long way in preventing unnecessary absences and resignations, not to mention facilitating boosted morale and productivity.
A thought leader on HR and employment law; Kate is the Director of HR Advice and Consultancy at global employment law consultancy, Peninsula.
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The government rejected menopause support, but leave it to this author to take a cheap, self-serving shot at businesses. Her occupation speaks volumes. This may play with some of her clients, which I assume is the point of this article. But the fact is most employees take care of their employees as best they can, given a very competitive market, out of their own self interest. Adam Smith had a point. Ebenezer Scrooge goes out of business, or is transformed, as in the movie. This article is written for a time that no longer exists, and based on an assumption that companies are vile. For the most part, they aren't.