A Women and Equalities Committee meeting this week discussed how the menopause affects women at work and what employers should be aware of.
The Government should enable women who feel forced to leave their job because of the menopause to bring cases of direct discrimination on grounds of both age and sex, according to a leading expert.
Currently you can only sue for direct discrimination using one of the protected characteristics under the Equality Act. Joanna Brewis, Professor of People and Organisations at the Open University Business School, told the Women and Equalities Committee’s enquiry into the menopause at work that being able to use more than one could strengthen a woman’s case.
She also warned that employers could face cases of breaches of their duty of care under health and safety at work legislation if work puts women’s health at greater risk by worsening menopause symptoms. Professor Brewis said the Government needs to raise employers’ awareness of the risk of legal action, warning that there have been a handful of successful menopause cases at tribunal and that more are likely to be in the pipeline.
Asked why employers might not take action on the menopause, Professor Brewis told the Committee that employers may worry that introducing a menopause policy or guidance might make them open to having to do that for all health-related conditions. Nevertheless, she said, the menopause affects half the population. “Unlike pregnancy and maternity leave it will happen to everyone with a womb,” she said.
She added that women were worried that talking about menopause rights could be used against them, but she said this was probably said about pregnancy and that menopause doesn’t just affect women. “A lot of it is just about education,” she stated. There is also a perception of special treatment for women, she added, arguing that she believed it was simply about levelling the playing field.
Nevertheless, Professor Brewis doesn’t believe menopause policies should be mandatory and talked about guidance needing to fit particular contexts. “It’s horses for courses,” she said. However, she would like to see an expectation that all employers, except micro employers, should support women going through the menopause and educate line managers about it.
Professor Brewis also called for menopause training for those working on employee assistance programmes, training for line managers on what is a reasonable adjustment and she said employers should be educated to realise that menopause symptoms may lead to repeated short absences and that these should not trigger a performance review.
She listed a range of things employers could take into consideration from flexible working and menopause champions to noise reduction headphones and comfortable uniforms.
Professor Brewis is involved in the creation of a menopause friendly accreditation scheme for employers which features best practice videos which aim to raise standards.
Professor Brewis was asked what menopause symptoms are hardest to cope with at work. She said fatigue and insomnia which affect decision-making and concentration are very difficult for women in the workplace. Hot flushes can be embarrassing, cause worry and women can feel that they make them look unprofessional. Mood swings can lead to emotional outbursts, a sense of losing control and not being able to empathise with others. Recent research has also highlight the impact of menstrual flooding.
Professor Brewis said work can make symptoms worse through, for instance, work-related stress, bad ventilation, a lack of natural light, exposure to noise, a lack of available toilets, restrictive work clothes and physical demands.
She cited a recent major study which found that women who reported one problematic symptom at age 50 were 43% more likely to leave their jobs by the age of 55 and nearly 25% more likely to reduce their hours. Professor Brewis said many did not have that option because they were the main earner in their family. All this will contribute to the gender pay gap, which is highest when women are in their 50s, and therefore to the gender pension gap which stands at 40%, said Professor Brewis. Then there is the loss of the social support that women may experience from being forced to leave work. Moreover, there are costs to the employer in replacing them in addition to lost productivity from some menopause symptoms.
Professor Brewis also cited another study which showed that 30% of women who were on HRT and stopped taking it subsequently had to leave work because their symptoms were so unbearable.
The session heard from two other experts who mainly spoke about HRT, raising awareness about the menopause generally and the health implications of not getting treatment, of stigma and a lack of interest in women’s health. Dr Nighat Arif, a GP and women’s health and family planning specialist, said workplace menopause support needs to start with the NHS doing all it can to retain women in the workplace who have personal experience of women’s health issues. She also spoke of the need to ensure that menopause policy is inclusive of all women, given much of the research on menopause is based on a narrow group of white, able-bodied, middle class women. Speakers also noted that menopause education should begin at school, given a small percentage of women experience symptoms at a fairly young age.