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We need to talk about the menopause

Jasmine Patel discusses the need for employers to factor the menopause into their health and safety agenda

Mature female employee at work
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Jasmine is an employment law solicitor who tweets as @JasmineJpatel
Being a woman at work can be tricky. Despite most women having a period once a month from the age of around 12 to 45, talking about your period at work is still seen as a taboo subject for many.

It is not uncommon for female colleagues to ask each other for a tampon in a hushed whisper at work, for fear that someone may overhear. If they can, they will avoid even saying the word and then hope that no one will see as they rush off to the bathroom with the object in hand. 

Another stage in a woman’s life which is not often discussed is the menopause. For some women going through the menopause will not adversely affect them and they will be able to manage the transition well. However for others it can be an extremely difficult phase.

Unfortunately the menopause is not something which happens overnight. It can often be a long process and sometimes last for up to four years (if not more). It can also be accompanied, by quite debilitating symptoms including hot flushes, low mood and anxiety.  

And yet, while it is a significant and impactful stage in life for a lot of women, it is rarely spoken about or discussed.  

That is why the recent guidance published by Acas in October last year for employers and employees on how to deal with the menopause at work is most welcome. It makes for interesting and informative reading and will hopefully be read by employers the UK over.

The menopause usually happens in a woman’s late 40s/early 50s. As people remain in work for longer it is becoming increasingly important for employers to be aware of it and make changes where necessary. 

Indeed, the Acas guidance states that by 2022 it is forecast that around one in six women in work will be over 50. 

In March last year the CIPD reported that its research had found that three out of five women between the ages of 45 and 55 who are experiencing menopause symptoms say it has a negative impact on them at work. 

While everyone’s experience of the menopause will be different, it is therefore clearly significant and affects enough women that it should be factored into an employer’s agenda when considering the health and safety of their workforce. 

The Acas guidance gives a number of helpful tips to employers about how to manage the menopause at work. For example, it suggests that employers should undertake a health and safety assessment for those affected, including assessing:
  • The temperature and ventilation in the workplace
  • The materials used in the uniform, if there is one, and whether it might make a worker going through the perimenopause or menopause feel too hot or worsen skin irritation
  • Somewhere suitable for the worker to rest
  • Whether toilet and washroom facilities are easily available
  • Whether cold drinking water is easily available

All of these changes could make the difference between having a happy worker or one who becomes increasingly depressed and who feels sidelined as their work becomes harder to manage. 

Unfortunately a lot of employees will still choose not to disclose the fact that they are going through the menopause and thus, may lose the chance to have changes made to their workplace.

Understandably perhaps, women are not always willing to make this disclosure for fear that it will affect the way they are treated and viewed at work. If they work in an environment with a lot of younger people for example, they may feel that their management will not understand what it means and make judgments against them. 

Indeed, the CIPD in March 2019, reported that “privacy (45%) was the number one consideration for women choosing not to disclose. A third (34%) said embarrassment prevented them from saying why they had to take time off and another 32% said an unsupportive manager was the reason”.

Women should however remember that there are several ways in which the law may be able protect them if they find that they are treated less favourably by their employer because they are going through the menopause. 

A woman may be able to argue that less favourable treatment amounts to sex and/or age discrimination. 

If jokes or comments are made in the office about her situation she may also be able to argue that this amounts to harassment. 

In certain cases, where the menopause has become a long-term condition it could also amount to a disability and an employee may be able to request reasonable adjustments in relation to the workplace so that she is not put at a disadvantage because of the menopause. 

While it is good to know that the law can protect a woman if she suffers from bad treatment, it would of course be preferable if she did not have to resort to taking legal action against her employer in the first place.

It is clear that the only way to stop this from happening is for the menopause to become a subject that both employers and employees feel more comfortable talking about openly. 

The new Acas guidance will hopefully encourage employers to do so and with more guidance and help made available for employers we can hopefully move towards a future where it is no longer seen as taboo. 

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