Working women must be protected when going through the menopause

Working women must be protected when going through the menopause

Two MPs have said they will be bringing forward legislation making it mandatory for every UK workplace to make provision for the one in four women aged between 45 and 55 who experience debilitating physical and psychological symptoms when transitioning through the menopause.

In August, the Labour MP for Swansea East Carolyn Harris said it was imperative that there was new legislation in place requiring all UK workplaces to have a menopause policy as standard, in much the same way as they are required to have maternity schemes.

Rachel Maclean, the Conservative MP for Redditch, said a menopause policy would offer women going through the menopause greater workplace protections, allowing them to take sick leave or change their shift patterns or conditions of work without fear of damaging their career prospects or losing their jobs in the process.

The MPs hope the new legislation, which they say has already received cross-party support, will force employers to recognise and understand the impact adverse menopausal symptoms can have on some women’s performance at work. Greater awareness of the condition makes it less likely for an employer to instigate disciplinary proceedings if a women’s productivity plummets because of her unbearable symptoms.

What is the legal position on the menopause?

There is no specific legislation in place to ensure that women transitioning through the menopause receive the help and assistance they need to remain in work. As a result, around 10% of women feel they have no choice but to quit their careers, according to the report, Menopause and the workplace: Faculty of Occupational Medicine Guidelines 2018.

However, there are legal remedies available. Any women who is forced to undergo disciplinary proceedings because the severity of their symptoms has had an detrimental impact on the quality of their work performance can bring a claim for unfair dismissal under the Equality Act 2010 and/or the Health & Safety at Work Act 1974.

The Equality Act 2010 prohibits discrimination, either directly or indirectly, against people on the grounds of certain protected characteristics including age, sex and disability. Discrimination can manifest in the form of harassment and victimisation.

Disability discrimination occurs when an employee is treated less favourably because of something arising as a consequence of their disability. It can also take place if the employer fails to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate the disability.

Going through the menopause is not considered a disability in itself. In order for the menopause to be considered a disability under section 6 of the Equality Act 2010, a woman’s symptoms related to the peri-menopause or menopause must have a substantial and long-term impact on her ability to carry out her day-to-day activities.

Where it can be shown that debilitating symptoms are having a detrimental impact on performance, an employer will need to consider that symptoms arising from the menopause are mitigating factors and may need to adjust the process accordingly.

With regards to sex discrimination, this occurs if an employer does not make the same allowances for female employees going through the menopause as they would for male employees with health conditions.

Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 employers have a legal duty to protect the health and wellbeing of their workforce and to behave in ways which does not seriously undermine the implied duty of trust and confidence.

In the case of women experiencing severe peri-menopausal and menopausal symptoms, an employer will be required to carry out risk assessments under the Management Regulations which takes into account their specific needs to ensure their environment does not exacerbate their symptoms. For example, employers will need to make sure that women with insomnia can work flexibly or ensure that those women suffering with debilitating hot flushes work in well ventilated office and have access to water and toilets.

What is the menopause?

The menopause is part of the natural ageing process. It is a time when the levels of the two main female hormones, oestrogen and progesterone, fluctuate and begin to decline. As a result her falling hormone levels, a woman will cease to ovulate, have periods and will no longer be able to conceive naturally.

A women is said to have reached menopause when she has not had a period for 12 consecutive months. The average age for the menopause is 51. Some women, however, hit the menopause much earlier in their 30s and 40s. This could be due to a health condition or because a woman has received cancer treatment.

The time leading up to when a woman’s periods stop altogether is known as the peri-menopause. The process is usually gradual and occurs over several years. For some women, it can be a time of significant hormonal and emotional upheaval.

The experiences of the menopausal transition varies enormously between women. A tiny percentage will sail through it, experiencing few symptoms, such as the odd hot flush or headache. Roughly 80% of women will experience some symptoms including regular hot flushes and night sweats, headaches, insomnia and loss of libido for a length of time.

One in four women, however, will experience menopausal symptoms that are so severe and intense they disrupt and impair the quality of their home and work life. These women experience brain fog, memory loss, impaired concentration and extreme tiredness, which will affect their professional performance and self confidence.

They may also suffer from mood swings, low mood and debilitating anxiety. Many of the women in this group are misdiagnosed with mental health problems and offered antidepressants which do not relieve their symptoms.

There are 34 recognised symptoms associated with the menopause, and each women will experience the symptoms differently and for various lengths of time. The symptoms can be split into two main groups and can be experienced for between four and eight years before she hits the menopause and for up to 12 years after a woman’s last period. The most common symptoms are:

Menopause symptoms (Physical)

  • Chronic fatigue

  • Dizziness

  • Heart palpitations

  • Headaches and migraines

  • Heavy, irregular or light periods

  • Hot flushes

  • Insomnia

  • Itchy skin

  • Loss of libido

  • Muscle aches and joint pain

  • Night sweats

  • Urinary problems

  • Vaginal dryness and discomfort during sex

  • Weight gain

Menopause symptoms (Psychological)

  • Anxiety

  • Brain fog

  • Confusion

  • Feelings of irritability, anger and rage

  • Loss of confidence

  • Memory loss

  • Mood swings

  • Panic attacks

  • Poor concentration

  • Problems with verbal recall

  • Severe depression

For more more general information on the menopause visit:

NHS Menopause

The Menopause and women’s health in later life

The Menopause Doctor

This is an extract from a longer article which appears in Dignity Magazine’s September/October 2019 edition.