Action must follow empathy on the impact of the menopause at work - Katherine Irvine comment

A reported one in ten women has left her job due to the menopause – the scale is something that has proven both alarming and eye-opening for many.

What surprised me, however, is that this figure was not higher. Much higher. If you consider the fact that there are an estimated 13 million menopausal women in the United Kingdom, the numbers involved – even at 10 per cent – are substantial.

Thankfully the dial is turning on how society treats the so-called “change”. High-profile advocacy, including that from celebrities such as Davina McCall, Penny Lancaster and Lisa Snowdon, has made this a more mainstream issue. Awareness and empathy has probably never been higher than it has become in the last 18 months.

The recent unveiling of the Menopause Mandate at Westminster was another welcome step in continuing to break taboos and encourage discussion as those personalities push for political action.

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Thanks to this, many women – perhaps most notably younger ones – are realising that issues they face are, in fact, menopausal or peri-menopausal. It’s a realisation that’s allowing them to access sometimes transformational treatment.

But this is just the beginning. Much is still to be done on recognising the effects of the menopause, especially at work, and that all employers have a critical role to play.

That at least one in ten women have left their job due to the menopause was one of the headline-grabbing findings from Davina McCall’s Channel 4 documentary, Sex, Myths and the Menopause. But my suspicion, as an employment lawyer, is that this number could be the tip of the iceberg.

'As awareness of the menopause has risen, so too has the realisation of when someone may be being unfairly treated at work,' says employment law expert Katherine Irvine. Picture: contributed.

If we take a hard look at employment issues, this research will doubtless not have captured those women dismissed from their job for reasons related to the menopause.

That’s not surprising, given that many of those people will not realise that this was the reason for their dismissal, particularly if their employer framed their departure as a redundancy or another “fair” and legal reason – as defined under the Employment Rights Act – to terminate their employment.

Ensuring these become practices of the past hinges on greater recognition of the fact that the menopause can have a huge bearing on mental and physical health.

Keeping that 13 million figure in mind, the fact that research commissioned by Channel 4 found that more than half (52 per cent) of women had lost confidence and almost two-thirds (61 per cent) lost motivation due the menopause serves as a wake-up call.

Impact

Furthermore, 44 per cent – equivalent to 1.4 million women in the UK – said the symptoms directly affected their ability to do their job, with 14 per cent saying they had reduced working hours as a result.

This is understandable when hundreds of thousands of women will be suffering symptoms including night sweats, disturbed sleep, hot flushes, anxiety, depression and joint pain as well as so-called brain fog. Even one of these could affect productivity and performance professionally.

While empathy for all of this is growing, it now needs to be followed by action. More employers would be well advised to ensure they know their legal obligations and to act upon them.

As awareness of the menopause has risen, so too has the realisation of when someone may be being unfairly treated at work. It’s unsurprising, therefore, that discrimination claims have tripled in the past three years.

This reinforces the fact that companies of all sizes should be creating a culture where employees are comfortable in approaching managers to discuss menopausal issues openly. And that they are treated properly when they do.

The basic legal fact is this: Under the Equality Act 2010, employers are required to make reasonable adjustments where workplace practices place those with disabilities (as legally defined) at a substantial disadvantage. This may include women suffering severe menopausal symptoms.

Tribunal rulings are proving that insensitive comments about symptoms of the menopause are unacceptable and put employers at risk of expensive discrimination claims, as too do the way that menopause-related absences are handled.

Cheerleader

To create that more open environment, some businesses have introduced menopause cafes – events where people can drop in and discuss any issues. Perth charity Menopause Cafe has been a real cheerleader for that.

But, to foster true understanding, we need to recognise that these initiatives should be fully inclusive, with men part of that conversation too.

It’s perhaps understandable that some men – or even some younger women – are anxious about being interlopers and believe colleagues need to be given the freedom and confidentiality to discuss health issues in a safe environment. I can see their concerns at causing discomfort.

I believe, however, that the involvement of all employers and managers is key in ensuring true awareness of menopause and peri-menopause symptoms and their impact.

Discussion groups should not be only seen as a support group for women to talk about a lack of understanding of their plight and the often-horrendous symptoms they are trying to manage, but an inclusive forum for experiences and ideas to be shared in an open, relaxed, non-confrontational manner. Positive encouragement to allow everyone to join that conversation, without feeling intrusive, is essential.

Greater medical research is undoubtedly needed to underpin so much of how we approach what can be an incredibly challenging time of life. Conversation is, thankfully, encouraging change. But we need those to be wider, better and more inclusive if we are to achieve genuine and progressive change in our workplaces.

Katherine Irvine is an associate in the employment law team at Scottish legal firm Lindsays

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