Menopause: the last taboo in the workplace?

In May 2018 the deputy governor of the Bank of England used the word “menopausal” to describe the country’s sluggish economy. While it was good to read the backlash and criticism of his choice of language (and an apology from him), it is clear that we have a long way to go.

We need to talk openly about the fact that seven out of ten women of menopausal age are in work in the UK. The average age of menopause is 51 and the often challenging “transition” stage can start several years earlier. Women of course encounter the transition with varying degrees of impact.

The lack of research means that evidence is limited, but the number of women negatively affected by transition symptoms at work appears to vary from 10% to 53%. Some of the recent research claims that women experience difficulty looking for work or reducing their working hours during transition and that some women consider their careers are affected or claim to have lost their jobs as a result (see Government Equalities Office: Menopause transition: effect on women’s economic participation (20 July 2017), pages 25 and 29).

Any negative consequences in the workplace due to transition are clearly unacceptable. Aside from the legal ramifications, it is a total waste of talent to lose any of our workforce due to transition. We are trying to close the gender pay gap and can only do that if mid-aged women remain in the workplace.

What does the law say?

There is a duty to protect the health and wellbeing of your workforce and not to behave in a way which may undermine the implied duty of trust and confidence.

The case law on menopause transition in the UK is limited to two non-binding cases (possibly because the remainder have been settled). The first case found direct sex discrimination. The second case held that the conditions of transition amounted to a disability and the claimant successfully argued disability related discrimination:

Possible future claims

In addition to the above unfair dismissal, direct sex discrimination and disability related discrimination, the other types of claims that could arise as a result of treatment of a woman in transition include:

All of the above claims can be hugely time-consuming, expensive to defend and damaging for the employer’s reputation.

What can employers do?

I believe we will see an increasing number of successful claims from women going through transition unless and until:

  1. training on health and wellbeing for which health and safety officers have a key part to play;
  2. initiating occupational health campaigns;
  3. training managers and discussing the topic at management meetings; and
  4. expressly mentioning transition in diversity and equality training sessions.We have informal support at work for mid-aged women (such as workplace networks, online support groups and helpline numbers)

What else can be done?

The onus should not be placed entirely on the employer’s shoulders and the recent government commissioned research suggests that:

There is a distinct lack of evidence quantifying the cost (if any) of transition on women’s economic participation in the UK. I believe the government should invest the requisite time and funds into such research to ensure we are better informed.

This article was first written for and published by Thomson Reuters Employment and Discrimination Blog

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This article is for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal or professional advice. It should not be used as a substitute for legal advice relating to your particular circumstances. Please note that the law may have changed since the date of this article.

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