Paula Kathrens: How can employers support staff with the menopause?

The government’s announcement in January this year that menopause would not become a new protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010 was very disappointing for those who had campaigned for change. The government’s view is that the existing protected characteristics of sex, age and disability already provide protection against discrimination and harassment due to the menopause.

Extensive health and safety legislation, including the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, is also relevant. Employers have a duty to protect the health, safety and welfare of their employees and must do whatever is reasonably practicable to achieve this. Employers also have a duty to assess risks in the workplace. In the context of menopausal employees, the risk assessment could consider issues such as heating or ventilation, staff uniforms which cause discomfort and whether cold drinking water is available.

Due to employers’ lack of support, many women leave their jobs or reduce their working hours because of the impact of the menopause. Others do not apply for promotion because of a loss of confidence related to it. All of this has implications for the gender pay gap, the pension gap and the number of women in senior leadership positions. It is important to be aware that the menopause does not affect only older women. Someone may experience premature, medically induced temporary or surgical menopause, and it is an issue that also affects transgender and non-binary staff.

There are many reasons why employers should support their staff at what can be a challenging time, often over a period of several years. Employers should consider putting in place a menopause policy which includes details of the symptoms, their effect and what support is available, providing awareness training for all staff, managers and HR about having open conversations to reduce the stigma when talking about menopause issues, ensuring that it is covered during the induction process, and reminding employees about the organisation’s mental health first aiders, employee assistance helpline and online support groups.

They could also consider appointing workplace menopause champions, training mentors, improving the working environment with access to fans, good ventilation, the ability to control temperature and changes to uniforms, offering more options for working flexibly such as changing shift patterns or altering start times, reviewing sickness policies so that they specifically address the menopause, its symptoms and effect, and whether menopause-related absences should be disregarded if trigger points are reached, like when a number of short-term absences might usually trigger a performance review or disciplinary action, and setting up informal workplace support groups.

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Being proactive about the menopause will help employers to recruit and retain staff, reduce the stigma when talking about it and crucially, will support staff wellbeing.

Paula Kathrens is a partner in the employment team at Blake Morgan and is a trained menopause mentor.