Employment Focus | Menopause – a time for transition of awareness within the workplace
Menopause has been a hot topic for some time now for a variety of reasons. It affects 50% of the population, usually between the ages of 45 and 55, and with more employees working through menopause than ever before, it is important for employers to take notice. Nearly three quarters of people experiencing menopause will have symptoms including hot flushes, tiredness, poor memory, concentration problems and bladder issues, as well as symptoms of anxiety, low mood and insomnia. Transgender men and people who are intersex or identify as non-binary may also experience menopause and its associated symptoms.
Menopause has been suggested as a potential reason for driving older women (as well as transgender and non-binary employees) to leave the workforce. We have also seen it cited in an increasing number of Employment Tribunal claims over recent years. In light of this, and the various headlines, we are focusing in on this topic and what employers can do to help.
Why has it been in the news?
Earlier in the year it was in the news due to rising concerns about HRT shortages, with the Government appointing a new HRT Tzar, and introducing temporary rationing to try and resolve the issue.
However, the menopause has been very much in the news over the past year following the launch, in July 2021, of an enquiry into workplace issues surrounding the menopause (the “Enquiry”) by the House of Commons Women and Equalities Select Committee (the “Committee”). This is examining existing discrimination legislation and workplace practices, to consider whether enough is being done to prevent women leaving their jobs as a result of menopausal symptoms or suffering other adverse consequences. This is supported by the Menopause (Support and Services) Bill which had its second reading debate in October 2021.
Earlier this year the Committee heard evidence as to whether the menopause should be a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010 (“EqA 2010”) for discrimination claims. It then published the findings of its survey commissioned as part of the Enquiry which, among other things, found that nearly one third of women had taken time off due to menopause symptoms, which included issues with memory or concentration and stress.
On 28 July this year, the Committee published a report, ‘Menopause and the workplace’ (the “Report”). Among other things this calls on the Government to immediately commence section 14 EqA 2010 which would allow dual discrimination claims, and to consult within 6 months on making menopause a protected characteristic, including a duty to make reasonable adjustments for menopausal employees.
The current employment law position…
The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 provides for safe working and states that employers must ensure their employees’ health, safety and welfare at work. This includes employees’ working conditions when experiencing menopausal symptoms.
In terms of protection against discrimination, menopause is not in itself a protected characteristic under the EqA 2010. However, employment tribunal case law demonstrates how an employer’s treatment of staff undergoing the menopause can potentially give rise to claims of sex, age and/or disability discrimination. There have been a number of cases in recent years where employees have successfully brought claims under the EqA 2010, as well as unfair dismissal. Here are some examples:
In the case of Davies v Scottish Courts and Tribunal Services ETS/4104575/17, Ms Davies successfully claimed unfair dismissal and discrimination arising from disability. This was after she had been disciplined and dismissed as a result of peri-menopause symptoms including forgetfulness and confused behaviour which had led to her being accused of lying.
In the case of Merchant v BT Plc ET/140135/11, the Employment Tribunal upheld Ms Merchant’s direct sex discrimination and unfair dismissal claims. She had been dismissed following a final warning for poor performance. She had previously given her manager a letter from her doctor explaining that she was “going through the menopause which can affect her level of concentration at times”. In dismissing her, her manager chose not to carry out any further medical investigations in relation to her symptoms, which was in breach of BT’s performance management policy. The Employment Tribunal held that that manager would never have adopted “this bizarre and irrational approach with other non-female-related conditions”. The manager was also wrong to consider that his wife’s experience was relevant evidence.
In the case of A v Bonmarche Ltd (In administration) ETS/3107766/19 an Employment Tribunal upheld an employee’s claims of sex and age harassment. Ms A had worked in retail for 37 years and was a high achiever. In May 2017 she began to go through the menopause and her male manager would demean and humiliate her in front of younger staff who laughed. Her manager also called her a “dinosaur” in front of customers and continually criticised her unreasonably. She complained to higher management about this, but no action was taken. She suffered a breakdown in November 2018 and her manager was extremely cold and threatening towards her upon her return which ultimately led to her resignation.
In the case of Best v Embark on Raw Ltd ET/3202006/2020, an Employment Tribunal held that an employer violated an employee’s dignity and created a humiliating environment for her at work when he asked her whether she was menopausal after she made it clear she did not want to discuss the topic. As well as making a finding of harassment under the EqA 2010, the Employment Tribunal found that there has been victimisation when Ms Best was accused of moaning and being “paranoid”, “petty” and “obsessed”, given a verbal warning and ultimately dismissed due to the complaints she had raised.
What can employers do…?
The Committee also heard that employees and employers have a lack of clarity of employer’s obligations to employees experiencing the menopause and that increased awareness and guidance of the issues would be helpful. The Committee’s most recent report states that there is much employers should do to help employees, citing solutions such as ‘allowing additional flexibility and understanding, alongside fostering a greater respect and understanding of menopause’. So what can employers do in the meantime?
Employers should create an open and supportive environment where employees can feel able (if they wish) to speak in confidence about symptoms without embarrassment or negative consequence.
Training staff in order to increase awareness of the menopause and its symptoms for all staff in the workplace will be beneficial, particularly for managers. This will be in relation to the potential impact the menopause can have on work and in dealing with menopause-related issues.
A clear policy can be implemented in order to raise awareness and discourage discrimination. This can be used to confirm an employer’s commitment to open and honest discussions about the impact of the menopause and to set out type of support that might be available.
Considering allowing individuals to work flexibly when necessary.
We will need to wait and see as to what action is taken in response to the Report, and whether this results in any legislative changes. In the meantime, it is important that employers are aware of the potential discrimination claims that may arise as a result of the treatment of employees experiencing symptoms associated with the menopause. It is increasingly important that employers are aware, together with their staff, of the potential impact the menopause can have. The Acas guidance ‘Menopause at Work’ can be found here.
 Women and Equalities Committee: Menopause and the workplace survey results (23 February 2022)
 Women and Equalities Committee: Menopause and the workplace (28 July 2022)