The UK government has rejected committee recommendations to introduce legislation protecting women experiencing menopause at work.
The move, which would have made menopause a protected characteristic and implemented a workplace menopause leave policy in England, has been criticised by MPs who say women will be driven out of their jobs as a result.
The Women and Equalities Committee of the House of Commons, which produced a report with the recommendations, called the decision a “missed opportunity to protect vast numbers of talented and experienced women from leaving the workforce”.
Of the 13 million people affected by menopause in the UK, a quarter describe the symptoms — which can include anxiety, mood changes and problems with concentration — as severe.
Research shows many women are forced to leave their jobs due to a combination of a lack of support and stigma.
What are your rights regarding menopause at work?
Kate Palmer, HR advice & consultancy director at Peninsula, warns that despite the outcome, employers still have a duty to support their employers going through menopause.
“Many will be disappointed by this decision as it had been hoped that shining a spotlight on the issues faced by many employees going through menopause would bring some real change,” she says.
“Given that the menopause will impact approximately half of the population at some point in their lives, the majority of whom will be of working age, the decision to bench these proposals may seem a step backwards in the fight for gender equality. However, this doesn’t mean that employers can ignore menopause.”
Although menopause won’t be a standalone protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010, affected employees are still covered under the existing characteristics, which include age, disability, gender reassignment or sex.
“First, any health condition, including the menopause, may be considered a disability under the Equality Act if its symptoms cause a substantial and long-term adverse effect on the employee’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities,” explains Palmer.
“Since only women and those assigned female at birth are affected by menopause, placing an employee at a disadvantage for a women’s health issue could amount to sex discrimination or harassment.”
Menopause policies can help support employees
Businesses could also support their staff by introducing menopause-specific policies. For example, offering hybrid working arrangements and flexi-hours may allow employees to remain comfortable and continue working without losing out on pay or work projects.
“Similarly, discounting any periods of menopause-related absence from disciplinary procedures and creating a culture of open communication will enable employees to reach out to their employer if they are struggling,” says Palmer.
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“Agreed tailored adjustments which will directly alleviate any discomfort they experience. Many employees will not want to take time off work, so creating an environment where health discussions are welcomed, and adjustments expected, can be a win-win solution for all.”
If the symptoms are severe or having a serious impact on your day-to-day life, you may be able to request leave due to ill health.
Supporting employees benefits businesses
It’s important to remember that protecting employees and supporting them in the workplace is in the best interests of businesses too.
“Menopause can be a difficult time for employees. Many report feelings of embarrassment and discomfort about having related discussions, in addition to the physical and emotional symptoms typically associated with this period,” adds Palmer.
“As such, it’s important that employers are adequately trained in first holding these conversations before they can consider providing effective support to affected individuals.”
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Menopause policies can further highlight the steps employees should take, and the support measures which are available, should they need them.
“Doing so can help increase staff retention, reduce recruitment expenses, improve productivity, happiness, and wellbeing, and ensure a more diverse workforce,” says Palmer.