By Colin Hawes, Claims & Medical Underwriting Manager – UK Employee Benefits, Generali
Stigma in the workplace isn’t just associated with mental health. Menopause is not that far behind in the stigma stakes – and arguably closely linked, considering it can lead to anxiety and depression in some - but unlikely to receive the same kind of media and government attention as mental health. Yet something needs to be done to help tackle this workplace taboo.
The menopause affects every woman differently in both an emotional and physical sense. The impact it has on an individual’s health can affect how they work, their relationships with colleagues and has obvious knock-on effects for absence and productivity.
Common symptoms such as night sweats, insomnia, lack of concentration and forgetfulness can lead to problems with work performance, difficulties in making decisions and decreased confidence, so excellent line management and a supportive and understanding culture is key.
If this is lacking, it might not only be employee perception of the company that takes a blow. Employers could risk facing claims for sex discrimination under the Equality Act 2010 if they fail to properly support their female employees. And that can have a potentially unquantifiable cost in terms of damage to corporate reputation.
The first successful employment tribunal concerning the menopause was in 2012. In the case of Merchant v BT plc1 the employee alleged that she had been discriminated against on the grounds of her gender when her employer failed to deal with her menopause symptoms in the same way that it would have dealt with other medical conditions. The employment tribunal held this discriminatory and unfair. It said that a man suffering from ill health with comparable symptoms from a medical condition (in this particular case, affecting concentration) and with performance issues would not have been treated in the same way. This was also directly against the employer’s own policy.
As shown repeatedly in case law, employers should take medical information into account in capability situations where ill-health is raised by the employee. An employer would generally seek advice in such instances from the employee’s GP and / or occupational health practitioners. While this case was at employment tribunal level only and therefore not binding law, it is still a useful reminder to employers of the importance of following a fair process.
And considering more woman in the UK are now returning to work after having children and working until later in life, employers would be wise to put in place the means to support their female employees through menopause transition.
How can employers help?
There is much advice and support for employers available. Business in the Community, for example, has produced a free toolkit2 designed to help businesses support women going through the menopause. Also The Department for Education published research3 last year to investigate the impact of the menopause transition on working women.
Based on the tips and advice for employers provided in both documents, plus Generali’s own experience as a group risk and wellbeing provider, here are our top tips for employers:
Record any sickness absences that are related to the menopause as an ongoing health issue instead of a series of short-term absences. This will ensure your sickness absence procedure will not necessarily be implemented and will provide peace of mind to your employees when they discuss their health needs. The BITC toolkit cites a survey by TUC, in which almost 1 in 3 respondents reported management criticism of menopause-related sick leave and over a third cited embarrassment or difficulties in discussing the menopause with their employer.
Raise awareness of how menopause symptoms may affect women in the workplace amongst line managers.
Be accommodating to the flexible working requests that will help women manage their symptoms, which can include exhaustion, anxiety and depression because of sudden changes in their hormone levels.
The physical working environment can worsen symptoms and increase stress at work so consider giving employees the means to adjust the temperature of their immediate work environment (ie a fan). Ensure that rest and / or toilet facilities are readily available and access to cold drinking water.
Refer female employees to occupational health if both parties feel this is appropriate. And ensure that managers are aware of reasonable workplace adjustments that may be necessary to support women who are experiencing the menopause.
If you have an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) in place – either on a standalone basis or as part of your group income protection policy – communicate regularly the vast array of services that female employees might find useful, such as telephone counselling, anxiety and depression screeners, online self-help programmes and mindfulness tools, body fat / BMI / heart rate calculators, and articles on health and wellbeing.
Physical exercise is also key. It’s already proven that physical and mental health are intrinsically linked and involvement in physical activity can only help women during this difficult period in their lives. Promote physical activity, making full use of wellbeing apps that are offered as an added value benefit by some healthcare and group risk providers.
1Dismissal without taking account of menopause symptoms – discriminatory and unfair, Pure Employment Law (May 2012) https://www.pureemploymentlaw.co.uk/dismissal-without-taking-account-of-menopause-symptoms-discriminatory-and-unfair/
2Women, menopause and the workplace, BITC, https://age.bitc.org.uk/sites/default/files/women_menopause_workplace.pdf
3 The effects of menopause transition on women’s economic participation in the UK, Department for Education (July 2017) https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/menopause-transition-effects-on-womens-economic-participation