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Menopause in the workplace – Thoughts from Sarah Evans, Employment Partner at Constantine Law

Yesterday’s guidance from the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) suggesting that symptoms of menopause may under some circumstances be considered a disability – a  significant stride towards inclusivity and support in professional settings or the reinforcing of negative stereotypes which only serve to undermine women's capabilities in the workplace?

Businesses should address the subject

Businesses should not shy away from tackling the subject of the menopause and its effects on a significant number of women in the workplace. Menopause has, for years, been underestimated by those who don’t experience it either directly or in someone they know; its wide-ranging symptoms can have a devastating impact on women’s lives and some women literally don’t survive it. The new EHRC guidelines are helpful in highlighting this. However, in my view, sufficient protection is already afforded by the existing provisions of the Equality Act, without having to resort to increasing protection specifically for the menopause.

Severe menopausal symptoms can already be covered under the current definition of “disability” whereby a condition has long term, significant, adverse effects, and employers are expected to respond to requests for providing accommodations at work. However, where an employer does not agree to making accommodations the new guidelines might be helpful in explaining to employers what their obligations are.

What does this mean for employers?

Whilst the guidelines do not change the existing situation for employers, they send an important message to both employers and employees alike, that menopausal women are protected and perhaps more importantly, that there are practical solutions to workplace problems. Accommodations such as flexible working arrangements, access to healthcare resources and support for managing symptoms would help to ensure that menopausal women can remain within the workforce during what can be an extremely challenging period of their lives.

Unhelpful labelling?

Comments in the press from leading female figures like Mariella Frostrup denouncing the EHRC guidelines and stating that women like her “have campaigned really hard for what’s a perfectly natural life stage not to be considered a disability”, whilst valid in terms of menopause being a natural stage of life, are also unhelpful if the linked assumption is that disability is somehow unnatural. We need to stop thinking of both disability and the menopause in terms of stigma. The reality for many is that ‘both’ can be debilitating. Existing laws are robust but until businesses and the general public are educated about the law and menopause in general then they are of limited use. The guidance helps with that.

Certainly any guidelines which would help companies navigate their menopausal workforce better than Avanti West Coast whose recent foray into “menopause bags” included the frankly insulting jelly baby sweet “in case you feel like biting someone’s head off”, a tissue “if you’re feeling a bit emotional” and a pencil “to write down things you might forget” would indeed be welcome.

Looking ahead

The working world has changed in the last 30-40 years with more women than ever in the workforce and women staying in employment in their 40s and 50s. Increases to the State Pension age will likely see the trend for older women in the workplace continue with more working women than ever going through the menopause. Employers have to catch up with this changing demographic. Those who do are less likely to lose skilled staff and more likely to create a workplace which is safe, forward thinking and diverse.


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