Despite menopause being a natural part of the ageing process, there is a general lack of awareness of its symptoms and effects, often resulting in menopausal women* experiencing a lack of support, as well as discrimination and harassment. This blog looks at the legal issues, and what employers can and ought to be doing to create a supportive and empathetic workplace culture.
Some of these issues were highlighted in a recent Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) decision, Rooney v. Leicester City Council, which was handed down shortly ahead of World Menopause Day on 18 October 2021. This case acts as a timely reminder of the challenges that menopausal women face in the workplace and the fact that more can be done to raise and demonstrate understanding and awareness of what remains a taboo subject.
Mrs Rooney was a childcare social worker for Leicester City Council until she resigned from her post. She brought a number of claims against her employer, including a claim for disability discrimination, relying on menopause as her disability. She cited symptoms including insomnia, fatigue, light-headedness, confusion, stress, depression, anxiety, palpitations, memory loss, joint pain, migraines and hot flushes that left her physically and mentally unable to cope over a couple of years, and having to spend prolonged periods in bed. She received hormone replacement therapy and was under the care of a specialist menopause clinic.
The original employment tribunal did not accept that Mrs Rooney was disabled for the purposes of the Equality Act 2021, that is, they did not accept that she had a physical or mental impairment that had a substantial and long-term negative effect on her ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. Although accepting that she had an impairment, the tribunal concluded that it was neither long-standing nor having a substantial effect on her from day to day.
The EAT disagreed, concluding that it was difficult on the facts to conclude anything other than her experiencing symptoms that were having a significant impact on her day-to-day activities and that they had lasted or were likely to last longer than 12 months. The EAT was critical of the tribunal’s lack of reasoning and their focus on what she could do rather than what she could not, contrary to the established approach in an analysis of the impact on day-to-day life. Although the analysis of whether someone meets the definition of disability will always turn on the facts, the EAT saw no rational basis on which the tribunal had reached its conclusion in respect of Mrs Rooney.
Of course, not all women will experience menopausal symptoms of the severity experienced by Mrs Rooney, and not all menopausal women will be deemed ‘disabled’, but what this case highlights is that menopausal symptoms and their effects are often overlooked or downplayed. With women over the age of 50 being a fast-growing demographic in many workplaces, and with increasing evidence that unsupported menopausal women are leaving the workplace, the support that menopausal women need is becoming a key issue for UK employers.
The effects of menopause are most likely to manifest in sickness absence and performance issues. The link to menopause may not always be easy to spot, especially as many menopausal women will be reluctant to share this information and sick notes may not refer explicitly to menopause. As awareness increases in society generally, menopausal women perhaps feel more prepared and empowered to speak up, and the number of cases likely rises, employers will need to be alive to the issues, be well equipped to provide adequate support at work and remain mindful of any obligations towards staff (particularly where they may be disabled but also generally).
Recognising the challenges faced by menopausal women in the workplace, the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee launched an inquiry into workplace issues surrounding menopause earlier in 2021. The inquiry looked into workplace practices, whether enough is being done to support menopausal women, the extent and nature of any discrimination being experienced and whether further legislation is needed, including a requirement for employers to have a menopause policy in place. The inquiry closed in mid-September, and we await details of its findings and the extent to which there will be any legal reform in this area.
Irrespective of any legal reform, there is plenty that employers can and ought to be doing. Increasing awareness and education on the symptoms and effects of menopause and perimenopause, taking time to understand the individual’s particular issues and circumstances, equipping managers with tools to provide empathetic support, taking a zero-tolerance approach to menopause-related adverse comments, accommodating adjustments to workplace temperatures and uniforms (if applicable), introducing a specific menopause policy and being alive to menopause not necessarily being disclosed will all be helpful in creating a supportive and empathetic workplace culture.
*While this article refers to menopausal women, the issues apply equally to individuals who do not identify as women but nevertheless experience menopause.