Patronising and unhelpful or a leap forward? What women think about the new menopause legislation

Employers could face being sued if they do not make 'reasonable adjustments' for menopausal employees
Employers could face being sued if they do not make 'reasonable adjustments' for menopausal employees

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has issued new guidance on menopause in the workplace, saying that symptoms can be considered a disability and employers face being sued if they do not make “reasonable adjustments”.

For women who have had to struggle with unforgiving work uniforms or manage a board presentation with next to no sleep, having a legal framework on which they can ask for support is undoubtedly a relief. But are we right to stick such labels on a natural stage of a woman’s life?

Do we really want to be patronised by corporate “menopause bags” handed out like a workplace perk, as train company Avanti West Coast did recently? And have the ramifications been fully thought through? Our writers discuss the pros and the cons. Join the debate in the comments section below.

I was pleased to work with the EHRC on this new guidance and welcome the renewed interest and action it will generate among employers. One aspect people are highlighting from this comprehensive report is the risk of employers facing legal action from employees who feel discriminated against if their menopausal symptoms aren’t respected or their requests for reasonable adjustments aren’t acted upon.

Such action is wholly avoidable. Employers may breach equity laws and discriminate against an employee if they: fail to make reasonable adjustment; don’t assess whether there is any causative link between menopause and the employee’s behaviour before taking action; or use language that ridicules workers in relation to their menopausal symptoms.

An employer’s best defence against any such litigation is to be menopause-friendly. Employers who develop and implement menopause policies will greatly mitigate their risk of being sued. Not only that, they will also create a more inclusive, supportive and positive workplace.

Organisations need to create a culture where menopause is openly discussed and reasonable adjustments are made. Training is key here, for all managers and colleagues, so everyone knows what support is available.

My role is to provide advice on the impact of health on work and work on health, and to promote healthy workplaces. I joined the University of Leicester in 2017 and one of my first tasks was to support the implementation of a workplace menopause policy. We continue to hold lunchtime discussions and health promotion events to promote awareness of menopause, and to support managers to make adjustments that help women at work.

The ruling is to be welcomed, but it is sad that it is necessary. Most adjustments required for menopause symptoms are very simple, cheap to implement and just need a common sense approach and some flexibility. A supportive management style that sees staff as individuals rather than cogs in a machine will reap the benefits of an engaged and productive workforce.

But there needs to be more emphasis on providing managers with people management skills, rather than assuming that because they can do the job, they must also be good with people – this is a valuable skill that is not always recognised.

It’s every bit as natural to stop having periods as to start having them, but you would never think it to judge by the latest guidelines from the EHRC. It is talking about the menopause as a disability if it has a “substantial and long-term impact” on those who go through it – that is to say, every woman who lives long enough.

It advises that employers must make allowances for the menopause – so, time off as needed, lower temperature in the workplace for hot flushes, a working from home option and a later start time for women whose sleep has been disrupted. Plus no one is allowed to be funny about the menopause because that’s harassment.

This is pretty well to pathologise the human condition – at least as it applies to half the population. No one pretends that the symptoms of menopause are anything but a pain – my least favourite being weight gain – but turning this natural process into a disability doesn’t make older women look more inviting as employees. Can you imagine breezing into work late on the basis that your sleep was disturbed? Me neither. Look, there’s HRT out there, which helps – a bit. After that, get on with it.

Although menopause often fulfils the criteria of being a disability — a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on a person’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities — labelling women as “disabled”, rather than allowing them to have treatment that addresses the underlying cause, hormone deficiency, is problematic.

Based on my own experience of working as a GP during the onset of perimenopause, I know that the accommodations suggested by the EHRC wouldn’t have been enough to keep me in work. I find it incredibly frustrating that we have a safe, evidence-based treatment that only a small minority of menopausal women are accessing. In the UK, only 14 per cent are taking HRT. We know that HRT is very safe for the vast majority of women, yet every day I see women in my clinic who have been unable to access it, despite asking for it explicitly.

While talking about the struggles menopausal women can face is always a good thing in breaking the taboo and encouraging open discourse, I feel as though in putting the responsibility for menopausal women staying in the workplace on the shoulders of employers, these guidelines miss the point.

This is a healthcare issue more than an employment law issue. It should not be the responsibility of employers to pick up the pieces of a situation in which women are being denied the treatment for a condition which would make many of these workplace accommodations moot.

Dr Newson is a member of the Government Menopause Taskforce

I welcome the EHRC ruling which requires employers to make “reasonable adjustments” for workers going through menopause. It is important to smash the taboos around the subject and provide protection for the 25 per cent of women who really suffer at this point in their lives whether from depression, sleeplessness, anxiety or physical problems such as hot flushes.

It is right that the increasing numbers of women between 40 and 60 in the workforce are not discriminated against – and we know that one in 10 women say they have left a job because of the menopause. However research conducted by Noon found that nearly three quarters of women at this stage – 72 per cent – do not want to be defined as menopausal, in the same way that I wouldn’t define my teenage daughters as ‘menstrual’. Because women in midlife are generally so invisible, the focus on menopause to the exclusion of almost any other aspect of their lives can be unhelpful.

We women in midlife are not walking hot flushes; many women don’t want to be put back into a hysterical, Victorian biological box just when for the first time in their lives they become free of their hormones.

For so much of our working lives, women suffer from being seen through a biological lens – whether it’s younger women being asked if they are getting married, or not being employed because they might take maternity leave, to this pioneering generation of women who are now hitting the menopause while at work, again being put into a ‘hormonal’ box just when they should be being respected as senior leaders, or looked up to for their experience.

We have to be careful that the necessary protections around menopause don’t play into a gendered/ageist/hormonal bias against employing older women. Given that the gender pension gap is even larger than the gender pay gap and that women live longer than men, we need to keep as many women in the workforce as possible. So yes, fantastic that there are now legal protections for menopausal women – but let’s see midlife women for the experienced, brilliant workers that they are, and not just focus on their menopausal symptoms.

I am glad that we are talking more about the menopause than when I first wrote about it 10 years ago. Many women and many doctors are profoundly ignorant about this stage in life and women get palmed off with antidepressants .

Of course I can see what the EHRC is trying to do but it seems a step backwards to equate menopause with disability. Nor is it tackling the fundamental problems. Flexible working may help women having hot flushes but going to sit in a special room feels a bit stigmatised. I never had a hot flush so it’s different for everyone but in the last few years we have seen the cranking up of a celeb-lead meno-industry.

The panacea is HRT and the flogging of endless supplements. There is always money to be made in female despair. HRT does not work for all and nor do all of us want it. This should be an informed choice. Much of this is about maintaining appearances rather than accepting that you will not be in your mid-50s as you were in your mid-20s.

Instead, the emphasis should be on the psychological effects of menopause. Women do not need their rage medicated away because they may indeed be coping with menopausal symptoms or caring duties as well as work.

Menopause is part of ageing and now no longer in thrall to our reproductive systems, we have a chance to think about the next stage in life. Some have a tough time, some sail through it. We should be telling women that there is light at the end of the tunnel and employers that older women will bring valuable experience to the workplace. We are assets not liabilities.

It’s about time that menopause guidance has found its way into legislation.

Everyone is affected by menopause – even if you’re not going through it yourself, it will impact you via someone you know or work with.

As an HR team, we encourage our staff to be open about it. We have regular speakers as part of our company employee network, and even our chairman spoke to the network about her experience – the night sweats and the hot flushes.

It’s been a long time coming and legislation is the next obvious step.

Yes, there’s a chance people may abuse the legislation, taking time off for very minor symptoms, but no more than any other workplace policies. You have to trust your employees.

I get that the menopause is personal. Of course, some women just want to carry on and not mark it in any way – and that’s a personal choice.

But some do and for them we need to start talking about it. I view it a bit like mental health. We didn’t use to talk about it but now we are; it’s normalised. The conversation about menopause is moving forward and that is a good thing.

As an HR professional, I know that many people drop out and leave the workforce because their symptoms are noticeable or can affect performance, and they don’t feel supported. The legislation will help address this.

If best practice is applied in the workplace, then women should be able to keep working. Menopause – no matter how severe the symptoms – shouldn’t ever mean the end of a career.

In their 40s and 50s, women really hit their stride with their careers. We have women on our executive team in this age group and they are exceptional at what they do. Not having these sorts of people in the workforce would be a terrible loss.

Women come into their own, they hit their best years at this time, and the workplace adapting to support and work around this entirely natural episode in a woman’s life is so clearly the right thing to do.