Out-Law News

Menopause support at work is both an HR and H&S concern

Zoe Betts tells HRNews about the role of HR and H&S specialists in supporting women experiencing menopause

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  • Transcript

    How can employers better support women experiencing menopause? 

    This is one of the questions being considered by MPs who have held an evidence session in Westminster to look at the symptoms, diagnosis and treatment of menopause, as well as investigating social attitudes to it. Earlier in the year, in a separate session, the Women and Equalities Committee chaired by Conservative MP Caroline Noakes looked at whether changes to the UK’s legislative is needed to better support women. They have not reported back on that yet. 

    The debates in parliament have led to heightened media coverage, including the HR press. People Management has a feature article ‘Managing the menopause at work’, flagging how the onus is on employers to support employees struggling with symptoms. They summarise the law quite well. So, an employer has a duty to protect the health and wellbeing of its workforce and must not behave in a way that undermines the implied duty of trust and confidence. They report how, so far in the UK, only two cases have been brought in relation to the menopause. In both cases, the tribunal held in favour of the claimants - one successfully claimed direct sex discrimination, and the other, disability-related discrimination. Other claims that could arise include indirect sex and disability discrimination, sex, disability and age-related harassment, victimisation; failure to make reasonable adjustments and unfair dismissal. Importantly, aside from the law, they point out that businesses that fail to provide adequate support to their female employees through the menopause also risk losing valuable talent.

    On that point, a survey in 2019 conducted by BUPA and the CIPD found that three in five menopausal women - usually aged between 45 and 55 - were negatively affected at work and that almost 900,000 women in the UK chose to leave their jobs because of menopausal symptoms. It often means women are leaving businesses at the peak of their powers which is a big blow to the business losing them, obviously. To make matters worse, women in this age group are likely to be eligible for senior management roles, and so their exit can lessen diversity at executive levels. 

    So what about the symptoms of the menopause? Well they are explained very well by the Menopause Society’s Heather Currie who is a gynaecologist and was one of the witnesses who gave evidence to the parliamentary committee a fortnight ago. Here she is:

    Video – Menopause Society

    It’s good to see this issue in news and it does seem attitudes are changing, helped no doubt, by celebrities appearing on TV talking about their own experience – Davina McCall’s documentary on Channel 4 for example – and, we’ve noticed, clients are now taking a much more proactive stance when it comes to the menopause, with management and support of women a much higher priority. So let’s hear more about that. Zoe Betts is a health and safety law specialist who joined me by video-link to discuss the issues. I put it to Zoe that it’s a good thing this is now being widely debated:

    Zoe Betts: “Well, I think Joe, it's like many subjects that have previously been regarded as taboo, or perhaps too sensitive to discuss. There is a movement in society to thrust these issues into the public domain to try and drive culture change and I think that that is certainly right in the case of menopause. I heard recently somebody comparing the knowledge and understanding of menopause in the workplace to mental health, maybe five or ten years ago. So, it's certainly time to focus on this issue. When you look at the bigger picture the numbers are really quite striking. Working women are the biggest demographic in the workplace, hundreds of thousands of women will be going through the perimenopause or the menopause at the moment and probably suffering in silence. There was a recent survey by the Welsh TUC and they found that over nine out of ten women said that having had direct experience of the menopause it had a negative impact on their working life. There was a different piece of research for World Menopause Month, that was October, that said that a quarter, 25%, of the 2000 women surveyed had left their jobs completely because of their experience of the menopause and many other said that their careers had stalled, or that they'd experienced disciplinary action because of increased sickness absence or even perceived performance issues. So this is having a massive impact, in my view, on talent retention. I think, if we see older women continue to leave the workforce we're going to have a skills gap and we're going to end up with a less diverse and less productive workforce. So, it really is time to have this debate and it's slightly disappointing in my view, that it's taken until 2021 to start it.”

    Joe Glavina: “Zoe, you are a health and safety specialist. Why is this a health and safety 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. Of the women surveyed in that TUC report that I referred to before, they overwhelmingly said that their symptoms were made worse by a poorly adapted workplace environments and a lack of support and proper systems and that cannot be right. 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.”

    Acas has produced guidance for employers on managing the effects of the menopause and, more recently, in May this year, so has the CIPD. We have put links to both in the transcript of this programme.

    - Link to Acas guidance on menopause
    - Link to CIPD’s guidance on menopause


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