Menopause in the workplace – Women and Equalities Committee Report

Menopause in the workplace – Women and Equalities Committee Report

The recent report of the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee on Menopause in the workplace contains some hard hitting and impassioned conclusions on the impact of menopause on women’s working lives.

I’ll admit to an impending sense of personal as well as professional interest in this issue.  Rightly so, I would say, given the massive impact menopause will have on me and all women at some point in our lives.  So what does this report do to take things forward?

The Committee’s enquiry was launched because of the findings of a BUPA/CIPD study that found “almost 900,000 women in the UK had left their jobs because of menopausal symptoms”.  Unfortunately, the period of time over which they left their jobs is not stated, but compare it to the figures for pregnancy/maternity discrimination given by Pregnant then Screwed, of 54,000 women a year who lose their job because they got pregnant, and 390,000 working mums who are treated negatively and potentially discriminatorily at work each year.  Even assuming the figure isn’t 900,000 per year, it’s worth bearing in mind that every woman will go through menopause in the workplace or in their habitual routine of day to day life at some point, but not all women will become parents. Therefore, menopause in the workplace, on a statistical basis could be said to warrant just as much attention if not more than pregnancy and maternity related matters in the workplace.  

The report decries the lack of information and general knowledge around menopause, both of the general public and, more worryingly, within the medical profession.  It isn’t a required part of GP training. In various areas of women’s health, the medical profession has been found to tell women to learn to live with their symptoms – hands up if you were offered paracetamol during labour(!), or feel like you didn’t get much advice about pelvic floor recovery after birth, or didn’t get the care you needed when you miscarried. 

In the context of menopause, many women have been prescribed antidepressants rather than be treated appropriately for what were actually menopause symptoms and for which they should have been offered HRT. Others don’t approach their GP for help, assuming that there is nothing that can be done, or because cultural stigmas mean that talking about menopause is taboo.  If you’ve been suffering even fairly low key symptoms due to your periods for decades, when you feel things changing, it’s easy to just ignore it, or not notice for months if things change gradually. If it was routine to self-check for symptoms (and there’s at least one app for that!), women would likely pick up changes and, having been made to feel less stigmatised along the way, would be more likely to seek help.

All of this means that there a very good chance that women are working whilst suffering from undiagnosed or untreated symptoms of menopause.  

So what symptoms are we talking about and how might menopause in the workplace impact women at work?

Symptoms of the menopause are frustratingly ephemeral and can be difficult to connect to the menopause. They include:

  • difficulty sleeping
  • memory problems
  • concentration problems
  • hot flushes and night sweats
  • anxiety or depression
  • difficulties concentrating at work
  • increased stress
  • loss of confidence

All these symptoms can be exacerbated by stress at work, or environmental factors like being unable to control the temperature, or having to wear a set uniform. About a third of women reported taking time off work due to symptoms. Many lose momentum and don’t push for promotions they might otherwise seek.  

Time off sick impacts on employers too, and many will not look beyond bare absence statistics, reduced productivity or performance levels, whether due to that same lack of awareness, or for more nefarious (discriminatory) reasons.  

Menopause is rarely mentioned in Employment Tribunal claims. Unfair or discriminatory treatment of women is commonly presented as sex discrimination, or disability discrimination if she is suffering from symptoms that bring her within the statutory definition of “disability”.  It seems from the above report findings that perhaps women simply don’t identify that the treatment to which they have been subjected is ultimately due to untreated menopause symptoms, due to lack of awareness.  Or it could be that the claims do refer to the symptoms but don’t label them as menopausal, framing them as a disability instead.  

Some women will suffer debilitating symptoms, and this sense that they just have to suffer through it is ultimately causing women to leave or lose their jobs if they are unable to struggle through at their normal pace.  This report suggests that women are not being given a fair crack at life because of the lack of care, awareness, and access to treatments that could make a world of difference.  It’s bad for women, bad for their families, bad for their employers and bad for the economy at a time when we are facing an appalling cost of living crisis. 

What next?

The report puts forward a number of recommendations, including that menopause be added to the Equality Act as a new discrete protected characteristic, and that the government should bring section 14 into force, which would allow combined discrimination claims, based for instance on a combination of sex and age discrimination.  

The report also strongly suggests improving knowledge and awareness around menopause and menopause in the workplace by the medical profession, and assistance with the cost of HRT. Unless you are exempt, normal prescription charges apply to HRT and oestrogen and progesterone are charged separately even though they are used in tandem in HRT. The tampon tax continues even at the end of a woman’s reproductive stage of life! 

There are undoubtedly excellent reasons why prescribed contraception is free of charge.  Whilst there are exceptions, menopause generally affects women who are well into their working lives, reliant on the income they make to support themselves and their families, no matter where they work or how senior they are. It therefore seems counterintuitive and institutionally shortsighted at best to make us pay for HRT. Not to be flippant, but give a woman understanding, awareness and HRT and she’ll likely be better able to live and work to the full. 

I’m not suggesting that HRT is the panacea for every woman, but it seems an obvious starting point. Surely if it was easier to get hold of, for free, more women would take it and be able to regain a sense of normality that is often taken away by the hormonal changes of perimenopause and menopause. Then perhaps that astonishing statistic of 900,000 women losing their jobs because of menopause would be considerably reduced, as would related Employment Tribunal claims. That would be a positive for everyone.

Until then, though, I expect that we at didlaw will continue to be instructed by women suffering at work as a result of unfair and discriminatory treatment because of a natural stage of life.

This blog was written by Clare Chappell, Senior Solicitor at didlaw.