In its report on menopause in the workplace, the UK House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee recommended that menopause be considered a protected characteristic under Section 14 of the Equality Act. In the meantime, there are a number of steps employers can take to protect employees experiencing menopause in the workplace.
With World Menopause Day approaching on 18 October, it is an opportune time to reflect on the huge strides made in the United Kingdom and globally regarding menopause awareness and support. People are increasingly willing to speak openly about menopause and its impact on all aspects of life, including at home, with family and friends, and at work. Employers are recognising the role they play in supporting employees experiencing menopause, and the government has taken steps to consider how far this should go.
On 28 July 2022, the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee (the Committee) issued its report “Menopause and the workplace” (the Report). With a large and increasing proportion of the workforce suffering often-debilitating menopause symptoms, the Report is an important step in promoting greater support for those individuals.
The Report cites many problematic symptoms of menopause, including difficulty sleeping, loss of concentration, hot flushes, stress, and anxiety or depression. Compounding these symptoms, the Committee found a lack of support and discrimination affecting menopausal women. Despite the relatively low number of UK Employment Tribunal cases mentioning menopause, the Committee heard that menopause-related discrimination was widespread. This culminated in sickness absences, reduction in hours and ultimately talented employees leaving the workplace.
As a result, the Report recommends a number of progressive steps to provide greater protection for those employees in the workforce who are experiencing menopause symptoms. The most significant of these is the immediate bringing into force of Section 14 of the Equality Act 2010, which provides for discrimination claims based on a combination of two relevant protected characteristics (such as being an older woman). The Committee further recommends that consultation be undertaken with respect to making menopause a new protected characteristic in its own right. In the meantime, there are a number of steps that employers can and are encouraged by the Committee to take to protect women and all people experiencing menopause in the workforce.
As well as the personal costs for affected individuals, there are many other costs of failing to support menopausal employees, from loss of talent and replacement recruitment costs to the impact on the wider economy.
The Committee concludes that there is a legal, economic, and social imperative to address the needs of menopausal employees. While the Committee was not persuaded that a legal requirement for every workplace to have a menopause policy would embed meaningful change, it did consider that there was much that an employer could do.
The Report sets out a number of best practice examples, including the fact that over 800 employers have signed up to the Menopause Workplace Pledge created by the women’s health charity Wellbeing of Women. Other initiatives included appointing menopause champions, introducing menopause-related training to increase awareness, and addressing uniform and equipment issues such as menopause-friendly uniforms and access to fans in order to help regulate temperature.
The Committee also concludes that the government has a key strategic role in supporting businesses and developing and disseminating good practice. The Report recommends that the government:
The Committee also recommends that the Health and Safety Executive and the Equality and Human Rights Commission publishes guidance on supporting employees experiencing menopause within the next six months.
Currently, menopause is not a protected characteristic under equality legislation, but discrimination, harassment, and victimisation claims related to menopause could be successful on the grounds of sex, age, or disability. The Committee heard concerns that menopause-related claims were being “shoehorned” into the existing characteristics of age, sex, and/or disability. A number of potential limitations with this approach were identified:
To address these challenges, the Report makes the following conclusions and recommendations:
The Committee has recommended that the introduction of Section 14 of the Equality Act should take place immediately, with consultation on the introduction of a new protected characteristic of menopause being commenced within six months of the Report.
While the government is not legally bound to adopt the recommendations of the Committee, with increasing scrutiny and public pressure to protect the rights of menopausal women, further action in this area is likely.
In the meantime, there are several steps employers should consider taking to help support employees experiencing menopause. For example:
Employers who support this important demographic are ultimately likely to maintain a more stable, productive, and experienced workforce, and mitigate the risk of potentially costly and reputationally damaging claims.
As we wait for the government’s response to the Committee’s recommendations, employers can in the meantime take significant steps towards better transparency, education, and support, which will in turn help to generate commercial success.
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