Menopause and Work – Disability, Wellbeing or Just Caring?

A case in Scotland (Ms Mandy Davies v Scottish Courts & Tribunals Service) held that menopause could be considered a disability under s.15 of the Equality Act; whereby a person is treated unfavourably because of something arising in consequence of the disabled person’s disability and the employer cannot show that the treatment is a proportionate means of reaching a legitimate aim.

In this particular case, the unfavourable treatment was dismissal. In brief, the claimant had some medication that she thought had been in the water jug she was drinking from and the water was then given to two men in the court room. She panicked and told them they were drinking her medication. The point from a discrimination perspective is that the court found that “the claimant’s conduct was affected by her disability [menopause] insofar as her condition caused her to be confused and forgetful about whether she had taken her medication and whether she had put it in the water jug… it also caused her to be anxious and to react to the situation by raising her voice.”

There are mixed views from people about whether menopause being regarded as a disability under the Equality Act is a good thing or not. The key issue is that this case has brought the subject of the menopause and its impact upon women in the workplace to the forefront of people’s thinking. For many years the menopause has been a cause for derision or simply ignorance. The Faculty of Occupational Medicine (FOM) has produced guidance for employers around menopause and the workplace, as has Unison. They are brief but worth a read. There’s also an infographic here: http://www.fom.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/Menopause-Focus-Infographic.pdf

According to the FOM (and stop me if you already know this…) the menopause can occur prematurely at around 40 years of age or late into women’s 60s in some cases. Normally it occurs between the ages of 45-55. Statistics suggest that 30-60% of women experience intermittent physical or psychological symptoms. These include hot flushes, night sweats, sleep disruption, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, headaches, dry skin & eyes, aches & pains, mood disturbances, anxiety & depression.

If we think about our workforce and our reaction if any individual was suffering from any or all of those symptoms, we would want to support their welfare and keep them as healthy at work as possible. So when we know that up to 60% of women in the workplace will have some symptoms, doesn’t it make sense to proactively work with the workforce to create a supportive environment to minimise the adverse impact their symptoms may have?

It is worth noting that as society changes, many women in this situation also have children at home, or still studying and ageing relatives. This can create additional stress and financial burdens upon the individual. All of which will impact upon their welfare.

In 2016 the employment rate for women was 70%. The highest since records began. The number of employed women over 50 is increasing too.

So, let’s get practical. How can we support peri-menopausal women in the workplace?

If possible, the best start is a regular discussion between the employee and manager that includes the employees health and welfare and an understanding from the manager that support at work can enable them to remain productive. In the Scottish case this included only working on certain court cases, access to a nearby toilet, regular breaks etc. If women don’t feel able to discuss this with their manager, access to Occupational Health services where guidance can be sought, and / or an employee assistance programme can be supportive for the individual.

Managers should be made aware of menopausal symptoms so that any concerns around performance can be put into context and discussed openly, with resolutions being sought. Physical working environments can be considered such as ventilation, temperature controls, uniform requirements, rest rooms, breaks, privacy etc. An understanding that a woman isn’t being “difficult” around temperature, but may be having significant symptoms affecting her temperature at times is important.

This leads into a significant point regarding respectful behaviours. If we consider the potential symptoms above, they may impact on the way the woman is viewing herself with regard to confidence and self esteem at that point in time. To then be subjected to “banter” rather than support at work, it can have a significantly detrimental impact on her as an individual, which will in turn impact upon her productivity and the outputs you require as an employer. There is an economic imperative to be considerate as well as the more obvious moral one (and potential legal one).

We would advise that companies become proactive by identifying the size of the workforce that could be peri-menopausal at any time, and identify practical support as part of an overall wellbeing strategy. This will enable women suffering from symptoms to feel engaged and valued by their employer. The menopause is temporary, but it can have a substantial adverse impact on normal day to day activities for a woman for a period of between 4 & 8 years.