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Menopause needs ‘joined up thinking by employers’, warns lawyer

Zoe Betts tells HRNews why the menopause is a health and safety issue which should be on HR’s agenda


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  • Transcript

    Half of women aged 45 and over say their workplace does not have a menopause policy. 40% say they have ‘no clue’ if theirs does. Employers’ lack of understanding and a lack of support for staff is hitting retention and productivity.

    Those are the findings of new research by Perspectus carried out on 2,000 women and men of various working ages and is covered in some detail by People Management. In 'Pause for Thought: Reflecting on Menopause in the Workplace’ only one in 10 said that their work has a definitive menopause policy, while almost half of women, 47%, don’t feel supported by their workplace during menopause. One in 20 women over the age of 45 have had symptoms which had caused them major difficulties at work. 

    Kathy Abernethy, a menopause specialist nurse and founding member of the British Menopause Society, told People Management employers not supporting workers through the menopause is not only a workplace issue, it’s also a health issue. She said “For some women, menopause symptoms are impossible to ignore. They can cause difficulties at work and, similarly, the pressures of work can cause menopause symptoms to worsen.”

    Kathy Abernethy is right, this is a health issue, but many employers are completely unaware of it. In the UK we have the Health and Safety at Work Act and two sets of regulations which impose particular duties on employers but there is no specific duty relating to menopause. That might help explain why so many employers are in the dark on this and why so many women feel unsupported and choose another employer or leave the workplace entirely. 

    So, let’s consider that. Zoe Betts is a health and safety law specialist who joined me by video-link to discuss the issue. First question, why is this an HR issue? 

    Zoe Betts: “Well, that's a good question and I think a lot of people would ordinarily think that it sits wholly and solely in the realm of HR, but I wouldn't agree with that. I think this issue really straddles HR and H&S and it requires some joined up thinking from employers. Since 1974 in this country, we've had health and safety legislation which requires employers, in section 2(1), they have a legal duty to ensure, so far as reasonably practicable, the employee's health, safety and welfare while at work and that section goes even further. That section talks about providing working environments which are, so far as reasonably practicable, safe, without risks to health, and have adequate arrangements and facilities for welfare. So, my opinion, and this is what I would tell my clients, that extends to taking reasonable steps to make sure that you have an adequate working environment for women and trans men who are going through the menopause. I think where HR comes in is that really that's looking at the impact that these symptoms could have on somebody's work and their performance at work. So, there's a real nexus, there's a real link, between HR and H&S and it would be wrong, in my view, for those professionals not to talk together to come up with some real workable solutions.”

    Joe Glavina: “Well, yes, can I ask you about those. So, what should employers be doing on a practical level? 

    Zoe Betts; “Well, I think as health and safety lawyer I would say this, and it'll come as no surprise, but a lot of it comes down to risk assessment. That is a legal obligation on employers, and I think a gender-sensitive risk assessment would consider the specific needs of women in a particular workplace who are going through the menopause. I think it's important to remember that treating men and women as equal doesn't necessarily mean treating them the same. There are clear differences between men and women and menopause is one of them and that needs to be acknowledged and there are reasonable adjustments, and reasonable steps, that an employer could take in the workplace to create a much more supportive and adapted flexible environment. The sort of adjustments that I mean would be adequate ventilation and letting people sit in it open windows, having easy access to cold water, toilets and washing facilities, having adequate breaks and temporary cover in case somebody needs more breaks than normal, and a private place to rest in, access to fans and, of course, there are other genuine and clear health and safety issues. If someone complains of joint pain, you might need to do a manual handling risk assessment. If somebody says that eyes are particularly dry and affected by the menopause, you'd be looking to do a display screen equipment assessment. So, these are all things that should captured, in my view, in a relatively simple and straightforward risk assessment. You might also want to consider, because of the psychological impact of the menopause, a stress management risk assessment. I've talked about this before, employers should be aware of this because of the mental health side of things, but menopause plays in, and the HSE has management standards and a wealth of information that employers can look to, but what you have to avoid is an employee suffering detriment because they have to have adjustments to their work pattern or the tasks, their duties, or their performance targets. We've got to consider flexible and homeworking - the pandemic more than anything is proved that that will work. So why not if that would benefit someone who's suffering from debilitating menopause symptoms? We've got to consider looking at our sickness policies. We've got to consider providing information and instruction and training to employees, but also to managers. This is a legal obligation, but it's morally right, it makes perfect sense. Many employers pay a lot of money for occupational health providers and for confidential counselling helplines so use those to your advantage and promote those so that you've got an educated workforce and you've got employees who know where to turn when they need help. I've heard before, and I would advocate this to clients, that some organisations have set up ‘buddies’ and it doesn't necessarily matter whether that's a female or a male body, but I think in this context it probably makes sense to be female, but a champion or someone who's knowledgeable about the issue, receptive, supportive, and is just a port of call if an employee or, indeed, a manager is really struggling with this particular issue. That person can be the place to get some support and get some advice about how to deal with this. Overall, I think my main message is that we have to foster a culture of understanding and encouraging people to be open and to share these issues in a way where they aren't fearing humiliation or ridicule or criticism or disciplinary action. I think that's a bit shameful in this day and age and what we really need is to be encouraging employers to have a well drafted and accessible, readily understandable, policy on the menopause, or guidance documents that people can find and turn to if they need a bit of support in that respect.”

    The CIPD has produced guidance for managers on how to support employees through the menopause. We’ve included a link to it in the transcript of this programme.

    - Link to CIPD’s guidance on menopause


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