'A step backwards' | 'Menopause leave' law setback doesn't mean HR can ignore the situation

'Menopause leave' law setback doesn't mean HR can ignore the situation

A proposal to introduce “menopause leave” in England has been rejected by Ministers, amid claims that the practice could be discriminatory towards men.

Published on Tuesday morning (January 24), in its Fourth Special Report - Menopause and the workplace: Government Response to the Committee’s First Report of Session 2022–2023, ministers rejected recommendations from the Women and Equalities Committee to introduce ‘Menopause Leave’ pilots to support those going through the menopause.

The official response outlined concerns of “unintended consequences which may inadvertently create new forms of discrimination, for example, discrimination risks towards men suffering from long-term medical conditions”.

A recommendation to make menopause a protected characteristic under the Equality Act has also been dismissed.

The Women and Equalities Committee, who were behind the proposals, have slammed the decision, saying that “government progress has been glacial and its response complacent, while others have argued that increasing support for employees going through menopause is not synonymous with a less support for men.

'A step backwards in the fight for gender equality'

Kate Palmer, HR Advice & Consultancy Director at Peninsula, warns that despite the outcome, employers still have a duty to support their employers going through menopause:

“A survey conducted by British Menopause Society found that almost one in two women (45%) felt their menopause symptoms had a negative impact on their work.

“Given that the menopause will impact approximately half of the population at some point in their lives, the majority of whom will be of working age, the decision to bench these proposals may seem a step backwards in the fight for gender equality.

“However, this doesn’t mean that employers can ignore menopause. Whilst it won’t be a standalone protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010, employers should remember that affected employees are still covered under existing characteristics.

“First, any health condition, including the menopause, may be considered a disability under the Equality Act if its symptoms cause a substantial and long-term adverse effect on the employee’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. Also, since only females, and those assigned female at birth, are affected by menopause, placing an employee at a disadvantage for a women’s health issue could amount to sex discrimination or harassment.

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“Introducing a contractual entitlement to menopause leave could help affected employees. However, it may be more beneficial for organisations to instead implement measures to support them to continue working. For example, offering hybrid working arrangements and flexi-hours may allow employees to remain comfortable without losing out on pay or work projects.

“Similarly, discounting any periods of menopause-related absence from disciplinary procedures and creating a culture of open communication will enable employees to reach out to their employer if they are struggling, and agreed tailored adjustments which will directly alleviate any discomfort they experience. Many employees will not want to take time off work, so creating an environment where health discussions are welcomed, and adjustments expected, can be a win-win solution for all.

“The menopause can be a difficult time for employees, with many reporting feelings of embarrassment and discomfort about having related discussions, in addition to the physical and emotional symptoms typically associated with this period. As such, it’s important that employers are adequately trained in first holding these conversations before they can consider providing effective support to affected individuals. Menopause policies can further highlight the steps employees should take, and the support measures which are available, should they need them. Doing so can help increase staff retention, reduce recruitment expenses, improve productivity, happiness, and wellbeing, and ensure a more diverse workforce.”

Discrimination concerns are a ‘moot point’

Jenny Saft, CEO and co-founder at inclusive workplace benefits experts Apryl, issued her thoughts on why the government was wrong to scrap the trial - and why better women's health support at work is urgently needed.

“It’s disappointing to see the proposal of a large-scale trial of menopause leave rejected in the UK this week. The government’s argument - that menopause leave could lead to “discrimination towards men suffering from long term medical conditions” - is moot. The two things need not be mutually exclusive. Menopause leave has the potential to be the first step towards ensuring a range of health needs for both men and women are supported in the workplace. But now it’s back to the drawing board.

“Following the government’s decision, the onus remains on employers to be the change they want to see. Inclusive employers now have a responsibility to lead the charge and show that menopause leave can and does have a positive impact. All women menstruate (that is 50% of the population), so it only figures that the menopause is an issue that should be recognised and addressed at work. I hope that by normalising the issue, employers can help transform attitudes to (and acceptance of) women’s health needs in society at large, and demonstrate how women’s health support is an effective way for employers to differentiate and build happy, healthy, productive and diverse teams.”

Sick leave ‘not the answer’?

However, Digital health app Peppy, argues that although the Women and Equalities Committee is correct to draw attention to the issue of menopause in the workplace, women will be better supported by receiving information, advice, and treatment for the symptoms, rather than being offered leave.

Kathy Abernethy, Chief Nursing Officer and Director of Menopause Services, Peppy said: "While we welcome this focus on menopause as a workplace issue: approval of sick leave just isn't the answer here. While it's true many individuals do take time off work due to menopausal symptoms, what colleagues really need is easy access to information and appropriate treatment to effectively manage those symptoms.

“Many workplaces can and do offer great support, which is very important, but access to treatment - whether that is HRT, lifestyle changes, nutritional support or therapy approaches (or often all of these) - is essential, and workplaces who support their people to make informed decisions around treatment choices, may find that absence is far less common."

How HR can support affected employees

HR Grapevine has previously reported on several firms that have rolled out new policies around menopause.

For example, in April 2022, more than 600 UK-based companies, including the likes of BBC, Tesco, Royal Mail, Asos, TSB, KPMG and the John Lewis Partnership, signed a pledge to make workplaces more supportive for staff going through menopause.

Additionally, sustainable brand Modibodi previously announced a new policy that offers staff paid leave for menstruation, menopause and miscarriage.

Elsewhere, the multinational company Diageo announced its first ever global Menopause Guidelines under the banner of ‘Thriving Through Menopause’.

Previous research shared by the CIPD also highlighted the impact that the menopause can have on employees. The data found that 59% of working women between the ages of 45 and 55-years-old who are experiencing menopause symptoms said it has a negative impact on them at work.

The research also highlighted the need for additional support in the workplace, as 48% of respondents stated that they feel supported by their colleagues, while just 32% said they felt supported by their managers.

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