Why more must be done to support menopause in the workplace

Helen Tomlinson’s appointment as the government’s first Menopause Employment Champion signals that this once-hidden but hugely important medical issue is at last being taken seriously at national level. The role has been created to help employers foster more supportive workplace environments for women experiencing the menopause, and the news of Tomlinson’s hiring provides much-needed impetus for a societal change in attitude to the topic.

Recent increased media attention has also helped raise public awareness of the serious impacts which the menopause can have on women, while several Employment Tribunal cases relating to the menopause have helped clarify employers’ obligations. The issue was also addressed by the House of Commons Committee report “Menopause and the Workplace”, published in July 2022, which made important recommendations to the Government.

The NHS notes that 8 in 10 women experience some symptoms of the menopause, which “can have a significant impact on daily life for some women… most symptoms last around 4 years [but] … around 1 in every 10 women experience them for up to 12 years.” These statistics underline the importance of the issue in women’s daily life, including in the workplace, with a BUPA report finding that almost 900,000 British women had quit their jobs due to menopausal symptoms.

Women of menopausal age are a rapidly growing group in the UK workforce, yet current employment laws fall far short when it comes to supporting their needs. The menopause is not yet recognised as a protected characteristic in law, nor has the issue of combined discrimination on the basis of gender and age yet been enacted to assist the Tribunal with an issue unique to women of a certain age.

Menopausal employees often have to rely on employers’ inadequate illness policies, or are forced to argue that their symptoms amount to a disability. Many women understandably feel uncomfortable discussing their symptoms and needs with managers, resulting in even less support to address the impact of their condition on their working life.

A 2020 British Medical Association survey of female GPs found that 38% said they felt unable to make changes to their working pattern to better cope with symptoms. More than 90% surveyed said the menopause had impacted their working lives, yet just 16% had discussed their symptoms with their manager, and almost half of the GPs felt uncomfortable seeking support. Some even feared they could be “laughed at or ridiculed” if they raised the issue, despite working in a medical environment.

The introduction of a dedicated menopause policy in the workplace would go a long way to validate the issue, and would help employers and employees alike deal with the menopause effectively, so that valued members of staff do not feel forced to quit their jobs. Such a policy would also raise awareness and available support as well as enhancing equality, by helping ensure women are not placed at a disadvantage when they experience the menopause, and may also assist organisations in addressing their gender pay gap.

An effective menopause policy should include line management support and options for flexible working, and should also address the workplace environment itself. It should be implemented properly across the organisation, and be reviewed regularly to reflect best practice and the latest legal developments recognising that even with a policy some allowances will need to be made as everyone’s experience is unique. One of Tomlinson’s top priorities ought to be making menopause policies be seen as an essential adjunct to an employers’ sickness and absence management, flexible working, equality and health and safety and wellbeing policies, given the seriousness of the matter and the growing number of women needing far better support than is currently offered.

Published in HR Aspects – 5.4.23