The UK government recently decided against providing special protection for menopausal employees under the Equality Act (2010), rejecting recommendations from the UK parliament’s Women and Equalities Committee.
Nine characteristics are already protected from discrimination by UK law: sex, age, disability, marital status, pregnancy and maternity, gender reassignment, religion or belief, marriage and civil partnership, and sexual orientation.
It has already been proven in five successful employment tribunals that employers can and do discriminate against cis women because of their menopausal status. And, unlike pregnancy and maternity, menopause is something that practically everyone with ovaries experiences. But the government has refused to consider protecting it in the same way.
Efforts made by many UK workplaces in recent years show a growing understanding of how and why employers should support people at this stage of life. But many more workplaces could do with support in this area. This makes the government’s decision on menopause protections all the more frustrating for women and people with ovaries.
In addition to declining to make menopause a protected characteristic, the government also rejected a number of the committee’s other recommendations, including:
- the creation of a framework for menopause policies to guide employers
- the implementation of Section 14 of the Equality Act to expand possibilities for claims of dual discrimination, even though menopause is a fundamentally intersectional phenomenon
- a trial of a menopause leave policy with a large public sector organisation.
On the other hand, the government did accept recommendations to allow flexible working requests from day one of a job, and to make such requests easier to undertake and harder to refuse. It should be noted, though, that it had already committed to these actions in December 2022 as part of a response to a separate consultation.
UK progress on menopause support
It is now five and a half years since I last wrote for The Conversation on menopause as a workplace issue, when my co-authors and I argued that employers needed to take account of this reproductive life-stage for compelling social responsibility, legal and economic reasons. We said then:
Very few menopause-specific health and well-being policies exist in UK organisations. Little training or information about the menopause is provided for managers or any other employees.
So it is a real pleasure to be able to report that things have moved on considerably in the interim. Not only has menopause become a topic of public conversation due to efforts from women in the public eye like Davina McCall, Louise Minchin, Meg Mathews and Mariella Frostrup, but there has been a lot of really positive action among UK workplaces as well.
For example, 10% of organisations had support for menopausal staff in place in summer 2018, but 2022 data from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development indicates that 30% now offer some kind of awareness raising, guidance, training for managers or a policy.
Efforts to support those going through the menopause at work are so important. Not least because there are now some 4.5 million cis women of menopausal age in the UK workforce, according to the Office for National Statistics. And, as psychotherapist and writer Tania Glyde rightly points out, some transgender men and non-binary people will also experience menopause.
Menopause can affect every workplace – here’s how to start supporting every worker experiencing it
Managing menopause at work
Symptoms typically start in the late 40s, the so-called perimenopause, and often endure past menopause itself (12 months after the last period), sometimes for several years. These symptoms can be physical: menstrual flooding, insomnia, migraines, hot flushes and night sweats. But there are also psychological symptoms like anxiety and depression, memory lapses, poor concentration and brain fog.
We know that 53.5% of cis women experience at least one severe menopausal symptom. They are 43% more likely to leave their jobs than their counterparts who aren’t experiencing such symptoms, for whatever reason.
The workplace can also make symptoms worse. In a forthcoming chapter in a book about menopause and the workplace, I discuss the challenges that both physical organisational environments and colleagues’ attitudes can present for those experiencing hot flushes. A respondent to a survey we conducted as part of our research provided this account of trying to deal with such symptoms in an office, alongside co-workers:
The temperature in my office is 26 degrees. There are 11 desks, 11 PCs and a photocopier. Main server, fridge freezer, low ceiling, horrendous lighting. Two windows. Three double radiators. And the selfish staff that I share this hell hole with. 26 degrees and two members of staff want the windows closed … sitting at their desks with their fleeces on. Oh and electric fan heaters under the desks.
There is plenty of advice available for employers who would like to start supporting their employees at this life stage. Those recognised by the Menopause Friendly Accreditation scheme offer helpful guidelines around what employers, HR, line managers and other staff can do to support menopausal colleagues.
Two evidence-based parliamentary reports have also been released in the last few months from the Women and Equalities Committee and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Menopause, chaired by MPs Caroline Nokes and Carolyn Harris respectively. These reports make well-thought out recommendations as to how the UK government can intervene to support and extend the efforts already being made by thousands of organisations in this area.
Overall then it appears that, while UK employers across all three sectors are stepping up to provide support for their menopausal staff, our government remains unwilling to make any kind of substantive change to do the same. Any hopes I had prior to the government’s response to the Women and Equalities Committee report that they would finally take the issue of menopause at work seriously have certainly not been borne out.
Jo Brewis is an Independent Panel member for Menopause Friendly Accreditation. She has also received funding from the Department for Education.