'Missed opportunity': Government rejects menopause leave trial

The government has been criticised after rejecting new policies to help menopausal women remain in work. ITV News Correspondent Sejal Karia reports.

The government has rejected calls for a large-scale pilot of menopause leave, arguing it could ultimately prove "counterproductive". Ministers have also resisted a recommendation from the Commons Women and Equalities Committee to make menopause a “protected characteristic” under the Equalities Act. The recommendations formed a key plank of a report by the cross-party committee in July last year focusing on menopause and the workplace, which warned that lack of support was pushing women out of work.

But in a response published on Tuesday the government rejected the two suggestions, prompting committee chairwoman Caroline Nokes to question minister’s commitment to the issue of menopause.

In a letter to health minister Maria Caulfield, the Conservative MP said she was disappointed that “very little new work has been committed to by the government” in response to the committee’s report.

She expressed concern that the government had ignored what she termed the “significant evidence base” for menopause being seen as a “protected characteristic”.

ITV News presenter Nina Hossain speaks to broadcaster and campaigner Penny Lancaster, and Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, Caroline Nokes MP about the trial

But the government, in rejecting the recommendation, suggested that such an approach might not be the best solution to support women. It also warns of unintentionally creating “discrimination risks towards men suffering from long-term medical conditions, or eroding existing protections”.

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What is menopause?

  • Perimenopause means "around menopause" and refers to the time during which a female body starts to make the natural transition to menopause.

  • This is usually when symptoms start.

  • Menopause is the time that marks the end of your menstrual cycle. You are said to have reached it when you've gone 12 months without a menstrual period.

  • Menopause occurs when women stop having periods and their oestrogen levels fall. 

  • It usually happens between the age of 45-55.

What are symptoms of menopause?

There are more than 34 symptoms of perimenopause (the transitional period before menopause).

They include:

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Brain fog

  • Palpitations

  • Joint pain

  • Night sweats

  • Itchy skin

  • Anxiety

  • Burning tongue

  • Irregular periods

The government has said the proposal for a pilot scheme on menopause leave was not seen as “necessary” and could turn out to be “counterproductive”. “We are focusing our efforts on disseminating best practice and encouraging employers to implement workplace menopause policies and other forms of support such as flexible working, which can play a vital role in supporting people to remain in work,” the government said. Elsewhere, the government said it was “committed to reducing the cost of Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) prescriptions” in response to the committee report.

In September, it was announced that HRT could be sold without a prescription for the first time in the UK.

HRT tablets are taken to combat the symptoms of menopause. Credit: ITV News

The drug, which was reclassified from a prescription-only medicine to a pharmacy medicine by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency last year, treats one of the symptoms of menopause, vaginal atrophy.

Ms Nokes, who in her letter to Ms Caulfield noted the reply to the report was three and a half months late, said it was a “missed opportunity to protect vast numbers of talented and experienced women from leaving the workforce, and leaves me unconvinced that menopause is a government priority”. “The evidence to our inquiry was crystal clear that urgent action was needed across healthcare and work settings to properly address women’s needs, yet government progress has been glacial and its response complacent,” she said in a statement. “Its refusal to even consult on reforming equalities law doesn’t make sense and we urge it to look again.”

A government spokesperson said: “We recognise that the menopause can be a challenging time for women, which is why we have put women’s health at the top of the agenda as part of the first-ever women’s health strategy for England.

“We are implementing an ambitious programme of work with the NHS to improve menopause care so all women can access the support they need.

“We encourage employers to be compassionate and flexible to the needs of their employees, and are committed to supporting more flexible working patterns – having consulted on making flexible working the default unless employers have good reasons not to.”

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Some places that offer support for women going through the Menopause:

Menopause Cafés are spaces were people, often strangers, gather to eat cake, drink tea and discuss menopause.

Menopause Support provides private support via telephone and video consultations and bespoke menopause training and support solutions for businesses and organisations and menopause training days for therapists and well-being professionals.

The Menopause Charity works to improve women’s and healthcare professionals’ understanding of the menopause. If you or someone you know needs help, their information pages have plenty of information and ways to get in touch.