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It is time to end the menopause taboo in the workplace

Lorna Gemmell

In the last few years, societal norms have been broken down at a faster pace than ever before, and that goes for traditional workplace taboos. Gender inequality and mental health have both benefited from national conversations, and while improvements can always be made, these issues are treated with more compassion and fairness than ever before. Contributor Lorna Gemmell, Employment Solicitor – Law At Work.

But despite decades of feminist campaigns, and monumental shifts in other areas, women still feel too ashamed and embarrassed to openly discuss the menopause with their employer. It is estimated that 14 million working days are lost to the menopause each year in the UK (Health and Her), and as a result of suffering in silence and a lack of support, one in four women considering leaving their job altogether (Wellbeing of women survey 2016). 

The physical symptoms, such as poor concentration, memory and tiredness can create challenges and 59 percent of menopausal women say that the menopause had a negative impact on them at work (CIPD.) Yet, ill-informed attitudes remain rife within office culture. 

It is time for a change in approach
Last month the menopause made it on the agenda at the Labour party’s annual autumn conference. In a sign of the times, the shadow equalities minister suggested that, if elected, Labour would introduce measures to support menopausal women in the workplace including requiring employers to offer flexible working, train managers and adjust absence policies to consider menopause-related absences. 

Most employers recognise the value of providing workplace support to employees who are experiencing personal and health challenges. However, menopause is a topic which appears to be plagued by a certain stigma – this must change. Managers should receive training on the issue so they can feel comfortable dealing with sensitive topics and understand what steps they can take to make a real, tangible difference to the workplace experience.

The provision of a fan or the relaxation of uniform requirements are quick wins which can make a real difference to employees managing symptoms. Slightly trickier, but usually possible where the will is there, is flexibility regarding working hours and breaks.

Workplace culture is one of the biggest challenges, and as well as making quick, practical steps to ease the burden, employers need to think deeply about how they can change perspectives within their organisation. It all starts with providing information. Perspectives can’t change unless people become more educated and begin to truly understand the challenges of the menopause. Support groups, and appointing champions or ambassadors go a long way to establishing a strong support network within an organisation.  

Employers should not only be aware of the benefits of creating a positive, and progressive working environment but also be mindful of the legal obligations and risk. Although the case law is relatively minimal, it is worth noting there have been examples of menopausal women succeeding in unfair dismissal, sex discrimination and disability discrimination claims because of their employer’s poor handling of their menopause symptoms and the impact on their performance. 

And with increased attention on this topic, the volume of employment tribunal cases where menopause is a factor is only likely to increase in the years ahead.  

To protect themselves, employers, especially larger ones, should start by creating guidelines for managers. They should remain flexible in their approach and work with affected employees to ensure they are supported, don’t feel embarrassed and are empowered to speak freely. 

Law At Work will host a series of half-day training events to help employers understand how they can better support menopausal women in the workplace. Events will be held at Law At Work’s offices on 7 November in Edinburgh and 5 December in Glasgow. 

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