Employers need to be more proactive around menopause in the workplace, especially as it impacts some of their most experienced colleagues, writes Linda Hynes from Lewis Silkin Ireland.
Hundreds and thousands of people in Ireland are affected by the menopause at any given time.
The menopause typically affects people between 45 and 55 years of age who are often reaching senior positions or are well established in their careers.
“Outside of the potential impact on work performance and talent retention, issues connected to menopause can lead to claims of gender, age and/or disability discrimination for employers if not managed properly”
This has been a significant topic of public conversation over the last 12 months and government policymakers have set out their commitments in response to the demand for better menopause awareness and support.
What are the employment implications?
October was World Menopause Awareness Month, and The Menopause Hub, a dedicated menopause clinic in Ireland, recently revealed the results of a survey they had undertaken to understand the scale of the issue in Irish society. That survey revealed that 42pc of those surveyed said their ‘symptoms affected them a lot at work’. While 31pc said their ‘performance was affected a lot at work’. 39pc of those surveyed said they had to take time off work due to their symptoms, and 43pc actually considered giving up work due to symptoms.
Interestingly the survey showed an overwhelming call for employers to take more action to support employees going through the menopause. Indeed 97pc of respondents would like to see training introduced in their workplace for management and HR regarding the impact of menopause on employees, and 94pc would like to see a menopause policy implemented by their employer.
Outside of the potential impact on work performance and talent retention, issues connected to menopause can lead to claims of gender, age and/or disability discrimination for employers if not managed properly.
Employees who are treated less favourably when it comes to this issue may be able to bring a claim of direct gender discrimination. The Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) may find direct discrimination if menopause symptoms are treated differently from other medical conditions. For example, an Employment Tribunal in the UK found there was direct discrimination in a case where the employer did not consider whether menopausal symptoms were the reason for an employee’s poor performance, when other medical illnesses would not have been ignored in the same way.
Employers should also ensure that any policies or practices do not indirectly discriminate against those who may be suffering from menopause symptoms, particularly in cases of performance management. For example, an employee who is finding it difficult to concentrate as a symptom of the menopause may not be able to meet certain performance targets as easily as colleagues.
Workplace ‘banter’ and jokes regarding the menopause should be treated just as seriously as if they were about any other protected characteristic, as this is most likely targeted at women and so can lead to claims for sexual harassment.
Given that perimenopause and menopause are typically age-related, employers also need to be aware of age discrimination risks affecting this group. It may be direct age discrimination or harassment to target unfair treatment at employees because they are of menopausal age. Similarly, it may be indirect age discrimination to have a policy or practice which disadvantages people who are going through the menopause.
Whether or not menopause amounts to a disability will depend upon the individual’s particular circumstances. Some may only experience minor symptoms, while others can be more severely affected. The legal definition of a disability in Ireland is extremely broad, so disabilities that are temporary in nature may come within the protection of the legislation. Employers should treat all absences due to illness carefully and, if there is any doubt, treat them as a disability.
What steps should an employer take to support employees?
It’s increasingly evident that employees want this support and that employers appreciate that they need to do something in this space. It’s also clear that there are practical and legal implications for employers if they don’t take appropriate steps to support employees going through menopause. So, what can employers do?
- Raise awareness
Many employees who will themselves be directly affected by menopause don’t know a lot about menopause. Guidance for both employees and line managers on dealing with menopause should be freely available in the workplace. This could include well-being initiatives and blogs setting out information about menopause and the supports available. Running drop-in awareness sessions and sending out information on menopause to employees is a good way to start.
- Create a safe space to talk
Talking openly and respectfully about menopause can give employees the confidence to speak up if they are struggling at work because of their symptoms. Some employers are setting up menopause clubs and groups where employees can discuss with colleagues their concerns and learn about the supports that are available both inside the workplace and more generally. Having a menopause or well-being champion who can be a point of contact for both employees and their managers can also be helpful where employees may be uncomfortable discussing the topic directly with their manager.
- Train managers
People managers should be trained to understand the impact that menopause can have on employees and what adjustments may be necessary to support affected employees. Some managers may have their own experience of menopause or of others going through it but should be aware that everyone experiences menopause differently and may require different supports.
- Look at what resources and benefits are already in place
The most common supports that employers can easily draw on are supports already provided for under their Employee Assistance Programmes and health insurance policies. Many health insurance providers actually offer lots of support in relation to menopause and employers should look to understand what is already available to employees. Understanding what is already available to support employees and raising awareness of these supports is a quick and low-cost step an employer can take in terms of menopause support.
- Flexibility and absence management
Flexibility is key as menopause symptoms can vary and change throughout an employee’s menopause. Sickness absence procedures should make it clear that they are sufficiently flexible to cater for menopause-related sickness absence. Employees should understand that the employer will be flexible in allowing them to take time off for medical appointments. Employees should have the ability to avail of paid sick leave and unpaid sick leave where needed.
- Consider implementing a menopause policy
A menopause policy demonstrates an employer’s commitment to supporting employees going through menopause and is a good initiative to raise awareness of the topic. However, employers don’t need to reinvent the wheel to put such a policy in place, it could be as simple as bringing together all the existing supports that are available to employees in one place so it’s easily accessible to employees and easy to understand.
The war to attract and retain talent is only becoming fiercer for employers. Strong diversity, inclusion and wellbeing initiatives continue to be a significant advantage in the war for talent.
As part of demonstrating that an organisation is a good employer and understands the challenges employees will go through in life, it’s important that employers recognise menopause as an area in which employees value support and that they highlight to employees and potential employees what supports are available.