Menopause: a call to action for employers

Article 11 March 2022 Experience: Employment

The House of Commons’ Women and Equalities Committee published its ‘Menopause and the workplace’ survey results on 23 February 2022¹. The key findings should give all employers food for thought.

The survey was conducted during Autumn 2021 and received 2,161 responses, a third of them from respondents under the age of 50:

  • 75 per cent of those responding had experienced problems with memory or concentration;
  • 72 per cent felt less able to concentrate at work;
  • 70 per cent felt more stressed at work;
  • 67 per cent experienced a loss of confidence in their abilities; and
  • 31 per cent took time off as a result of their symptoms.

There is a clear call to action here for employers from a section of the workforce that is increasing in number. Office for National Statistics figures show that the number of female workers in the 50-64 age bracket in work has grown steadily (apart from a very small decline during the pandemic), from 46.9 per cent in 1992 to 67 per cent in 2021² . This means a very large number of employees are coping with a range of challenging symptoms that are affecting them and their performance, and for the most part employers are completely in the dark about it.

Persistent stigma

Why is that? The survey reached the following conclusions:

  • There is still considerable stigma about talking about menopause at work. Most employees do not tell anyone at work or seek adjustments, out of concern for privacy and worrying about the reaction of others.
  • Many workplaces do not have any policies relating to menopause and employees do not always know how to seek support.
  • Those who responded want support from their employers, which includes practical measures such as making reasonable adjustments and providing for greater flexibility, as well as cultural changes like removing stigma, encouraging openness, education and awareness raising.

The persistence of stigma is notable. Throughout a period during which the participation of older females in the workforce has grown by almost 50 per cent, menopause has remained a taboo subject. It is still not uncommon for employees to be the subject of jokes and banter, including unwanted speculation about hot flushes and mood swings.

An employee’s unwillingness to open up about menopausal symptoms is understandable given the fear of being greeted with ignorance, indifference, unwelcome comments or stereotypical assumptions about employees past child-bearing age, rather than understanding and support.

This means a very large number of employees are coping with a range of challenging symptoms that are affecting them and their performance, and for the most part employers are completely in the dark about it

Increasing awareness

It is encouraging to see that this overlooked issue is starting to be given wider attention. In some organisations menopause policies are being developed, and HR professionals and line managers are educating themselves about the effects of the menopause and how to support employees through it. A number of high profile employers concerned about the issue, including John Lewis, Asos, TSB, Royal Mail, KPMG and Ernst and Young have signed up to the Menopause workplace pledge by agreeing to be supportive and understanding of colleagues affected by menopause.

The legal risks of ignoring the issue are also being discussed more openly. Menopausal employees subjected to unwanted comments that are offensive or humiliating have potential claims for unlawful harassment based on protected characteristics of sex, and potentially age and disability. In a recent case the Employment Appeal Tribunal overturned the decision of an employment tribunal which had concluded that an employee suffering from menopausal symptoms was not disabled under the Equality Act 2010, and that her disability and sex discrimination, harassment and victimisation claims, should be dismissed. The number of cases in which an employee’s menopause related treatment forms the basis for a claim is still small, but cases are on the increase.

Menopausal employees subjected to unwanted comments that are offensive or humiliating have potential claims for unlawful harassment based on protected characteristics of sex, and potentially age and disability

Time to remove the mystery around the menopause

There are positive reasons for employers to start a respectful conversation about the menopause. How many of us know talented individuals who have struggled at work and maybe had performance issues due to the menopause? Some may have even had their employment terminated because they didn’t want to talk about the fact they had menopausal symptoms, or even realised that their performance was connected to the menopause. Even if they did, perhaps they were concerned that their employer would not be sympathetic.

Given that the menopause is part of the natural rhythm of life, isn’t it time all of us become better educated about what the menopause is, how it can affect people on a day-to-day basis, and how employees can be better supported in the workplace? It is not a subject we should shy away from as more and more people are acknowledging.

GenM for example, released a nationwide campaign this year which encourages men specifically to understand the menopause and its effects. This followed the death by suicide in 2020 of employee Linda Salmon who experienced a mental health decline due to perimenopause. This campaign is being supported by major employers including Marks and Spencers, WW, Next and Holland and Barrett.

The measures that the respondents to the Women and Equalities Committee Survey identified as likely to make a difference were generally inexpensive and easily implemented. And measures that improve performance and the ability to engage will benefit the employer too.

There is a lot to be said for removing the stigma attached the menopause and encouraging a more tolerant workplace for employees experiencing symptoms, which for some can be life-changing. Employees may feel reluctant to talk about it, but being more aware of what an employee might be experiencing is a good place to start.

¹https://committees.parliament.uk/publications/8995/documents/152634/default/
²https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/employmentandemployeetypes/timeseries/lf2v/lm

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