Over the last few years we have seen rafts of employment legislation around discrimination, diversity as well as disability and increasing moves to encourage fathers to take paternity leave. Last year we saw significant developments in case law around the subject of obesity and the notion that this could now fall under the Equality Act and the need for employers to make reasonable adjustments.
However, there is a taboo subject that many believe could be a major topic in the next few years – namely the menopause and the way in which its symptoms impact on women in the workplace and employers, specifically those in the private sector need to wake up to the issue and recognise that burying their heads in the sand in not going to make the problem disappear.
Credit where it’s due….the public sector has embraced this subject and put processes in place including risk assessments and potential changes to working arrangements in the form of reasonable adjustments. You only need to google “menopause” and “reasonable adjustments” and you will be greeted by public sector organisations proud to showcase on line their policies and arrangements.
We now have more women than ever in the workplace and probably working longer. Everyone is concentrating on the gender gap and the equality of pay between men and women but the reality is that women are reluctant to speak to employers about the menopause because they are concerned that it is tantamount to committing professional career suicide but still, everyone is obsessed with the gender gap and many women feel that their career development prospects cease to exist in their 50s.
If an employee is clinically obese, the employer is obliged to make reasonable adjustments and these may include
– enabling the employee to park closer to the entrance
– making special arrangements for fire evacuation
– look at providing special load bearing furniture
– considering where their desk is in relation to a lift or being based on ground floor etc.
Can you imagine a woman in her mid 50s walking into a meeting and apologising for being late saying that she had a bad night with hot flushes. The situation is unlikely to happen because most women would be too embarrassed to draw attention to the issues caused by the menopause.
So why are employers lagging behind in recognising the need to make reasonable adjustments as far as the menopause is concerned? Is it because women say they don’t see any point in making a fuss and just get on with it even going to great lengths to hide their symptoms? However, this attitude is contributing to the fact that employers are either not taking it seriously or don’t recognise that we aren’t too far away from the menopause being the next big issue on the employment law agenda following disability, obesity and gender pay gap.
The menopause can happen at any time between 45 and 55 but according to medical research the average age in the UK is 52. It can lead to changes in a women’s health and affect how a woman does her work and interacts with line management and colleagues. Whilst some women notice no symptoms, about 80% experience noticeable changes finding symptoms difficult to deal with. The symptoms most likely to manifest are hot flushes, headaches, tiredness, lack of energy,sweating, anxiety panic attacks, mood swings, lack of concentration and short term memory. These symptoms can last anything from a few months to several years.
The sum effect is reduced sense of worth and reduced self confidence leaving women in their 50s thinking that their career development prospects are reduced and yet possibly facing the prospect of staying in work till they’re in their mid or late 60s.
Even if the employer doesn’t want to acknowledge the menopause, they should at least recognise that by failing to investigate the effect of the menopause in relation to performance and capability assessment, they are risking an action of sex discrimination which, being glass half empty – is uncapped damages and the likelihood of some unpleasant media attention. Everyone knows how the media are only interested in taking their seat at Tribunal hearings which are going to generate some lively headlines and love stories about high earning women in the City claiming sex discrimination when it all goes wrong when they return after maternity.
Many organisations have already done excellent work in the form of recognising the issue and putting in place reasonable adjustments such as flexible or home working, access to fans and better ventilation etc. However, there are examples of where women doing physical jobs have had adjustments in terms of the type of material used for overalls to reduce sweating and temperature fluctuations as well as issues faced by women doing driving jobs who may need to go to the loo more frequently.
Access to fans, better ventilation and air quality also pose issues given that body temperature rises immediately by 5 degrees during a hot flush.
As long as this remains a taboo subject, women experiencing menopause symptoms may feel awkward or face ridicule and therefore reluctant to discus their specific needs with their employer. Or – will they just pass the symptoms off as something else……If organisations want to be serious about retaining female talent rather than mere lips service and gaining benefit from female maturity in the workplace, we must all be more willing to discuss the issue openly.
Greater awareness through seminars, training and better availability of guidelines will all contribute to putting this subject on the agenda but in the meantime, we are aware that the menopause would fall under direct sex discrimination. But it is only a matter of time before a serious menopause issue impacting on a dismissal in the workplace finds itself in an Employment Tribunal and then it becomes tomorrow’s news and case law precedent.