Working through the Menopause?

There has been a lot of discussion recently in the media about female employees suffering from the menopause, with some campaigners wanting to put in place legislation to protect women at this stage of their lives. The statistics speak for themselves with three in five working women between the ages of 45 and 55 saying it negatively impacts on them at work. The most recent government statistics indicate that women over 50 are increasingly working part time, or more flexibly, rather than retiring and as such employers can no longer avoid the subject. But how big a problem is it really?

The menopause normally occurs in women between the ages of 45 and 55. However, the symptoms can be experienced for several years. The average age for women in the UK to undergo the menopause is 51, but some experience premature menopause before the age of 40 and it can also be as a result of surgery, illness or treatment such as chemotherapy, so it is not appropriate to make assumptions wholly on the basis of someone’s age.

Some women sail through the menopause without any problems, but those that do have problems may find it affects their performance at work. Mood disturbances such as anxiety/depression, memory loss, panic attacks, loss of confidence and reduced concentration can affect productivity and ability to make decisions. Disturbed sleep can make women tired and irritable, and that can impact on how they interact with others in the workplace. Physical effects like headaches, muscle and joint stiffness, dry skin and recurrent infections can also affect a woman’s performance. And sometimes this can mask other conditions such as type 2 diabetes.

In some cases, a lack of concentration leading to errors or communication issues could be misinterpreted as a performance management problem and lead to dismissal. Inappropriate comments or jokes in the workplace about a woman’s age, mood swings or sweat patches could lead to grievances and claims against colleagues, which an employer can be held vicariously liable for too if they haven’t trained staff to respect the dignity of others.

As someone at this stage of life, I know only too well how this can manifest itself. But personally, I’m not sure it needs additional legislation because I think that will make employers think twice about employing women; whether that’s because they may go on maternity leave, or later on because they may have other requests to work flexibly due to childcare, eldercare or to deal with menopausal symptoms. However, these are all just passing phases.

It is true that some employers have lost tribunal cases on the basis of sex and/or disability discrimination claims because they have not realised that the menopause in some cases is not trivial and as a long-term condition having a significant affect on an individual’s daily life means it could be classed as a disability.

It makes good sense to consider your employees as people – all at different stages of their lives and value that diversity. There is already legislation in place to protect employees so that they are not treated detrimentally because of their gender or on the basis of a disability. And flexible working is an option that has be considered if an eligible employee submits a request. Furthermore, simply reminding your staff that everyone should be treated with dignity will go a long way towards helping colleagues through a difficult time.

Yes, you can help by providing items such as desk fans, allowing more toilet breaks and improved access to water (although these won’t address all the symptoms), but such facilities should be available to all staff to improve your working environment so that staff feel valued. Ultimately it will result in them being more productive, so these are little things that will make a big difference. But quite simply, if there’s a problem, don’t jump to conclusions just because the employee is a woman “of a certain age.” Talk to her as you would any other employee and see what you can do to help.

If this has raised any questions for you and you would like to discuss it in confidence, please get in touch.
Posted on 23 Sep 2019
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