What is menopause and why might employers now be sued if they don't take it seriously?

Symptoms of the menopause can be considered a disability in some cases, and employers will be required to provide a range of measures to help, ITV News's Amy Welch reports

Words by Beth Thomas, ITV News journalist

Employers in England and Wales could be sued for breaching equality laws if they do not make "reasonable adjustments" for women going through menopause under new guidance.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) said menopausal symptoms that have a “long term and substantial impact” on a woman’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities “may be considered a disability”.

The watchdog has issued the guidance to clarify the legal obligations to workers going through the menopause.

Research shows that one in 10 women who have worked during the menopause have left their jobs due to symptoms, the watchdog said.

What are the symptoms of menopause and how will this new guidance be implemented? ITV News explains.

What is the menopause?

Anyone who has a period will go through the menopause when it stops, with symptoms normally beginning in the mid-40s, but it can also happen earlier.

Menopause can cause symptoms like anxiety, mood swings, brain fog, hot flushes and irregular periods.

The NHS recognises that these symptoms can have a big impact on relationships, social lives, and work.

Symptoms can start years before periods stop and carry on afterwards.

Employment Law expert Kate Palmer tells ITV News what the new guidance means for people struggling with symptoms of the menopause

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of menopause can begin months - or even years - before your periods actually stop and can affect people in different ways.

There are both mental health symptoms and physical symptoms that indicate you are going through the menopause. The most common symptoms include:

  • heavy or irregular bleeding

  • hot flushes

  • difficulty sleeping, which may result in night sweats

  • low mood

  • vaginal dryness

  • bladder problems

  • Poor memory and concentration - or 'brain fog'

  • painful joints

  • dry or itchy skin

The perimenopause is when you have symptoms of menopause, but your periods have not stopped. It ends and you reach menopause when you have not had a period for 12 months.

What is the new guidance?

The new guidance, published on Thursday, has been issued by the EHRC.

Baroness Kishwer Falkner, the watchdog's chairwoman, said the new guidance sets out legal obligations for employers and provides advice on "how they can best support their staff."

If menopause symptoms have a long term and substantial impact on a woman’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities, they may be considered a disability, the watchdog says.

Under the Equality Act 2010, an employer will be under a legal obligation to make reasonable adjustments and to not discriminate against the worker.

Those experiencing menopause symptoms may additionally be protected from less favourable treatment related to their menopause symptoms on the grounds of age and sex, the watchdog added.

What do employers have to do?

Bosses should consider how room temperature and ventilation affect menopausal women and think about providing rest areas or quiet rooms, as well as cooling systems or fans for women experiencing hot flushes, the guidance says.

It adds that women could be helped by flexible working, including being allowed to work from home, and start and finish times should be varied if a woman has had a bad night’s sleep or on a warmer day.

Relaxing uniform policies or allowing menopausal women to wear cooler clothes could also be a way of helping them.

What happens if employers don't make these adjustments?

Failing to make “reasonable adjustments” will amount to disability discrimination under the act if a worker’s menopause symptoms amount to a disability, the watchdog said.

The guidance also states that taking disciplinary action against a menopausal woman because of menopause-related absence from work could amount to unlawful discrimination, unless it is justified.

Using language that ridicules someone because of their menopausal symptoms could be harassment.

Uniform policies that disadvantage women with menopause symptoms could also amount to indirect sex, age, or disability discrimination.

How does this differ from previous guidance?

Some employers across the UK have pledged to adopt menopause-friendly policies in the workplace.

In 2022, the NHS, for instance, issued guidance that nurses and doctors should get uniforms in a breathable fabric to help with hot flushes.

While menopause isn't specifically recognised as a protected characteristic, employees experiencing it may be protected by discrimination laws relating to age, sex, disability and gender reassignment, as the new EHRC guidance recognises.

Under the Equality Act 2010, you are disabled if you have a “physical or mental impairment that has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities”.

Symptoms of menopause that meet this criteria amount to a disability, according to the EHRC. Employers are under a legal obligation to make “reasonable adjustments” when this is the case.

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