There has been much debate over whether menopause should be recognised as a disability under the Equality Act 2010. In some cases, menopause has been ruled to be a disability because of the significance and length of its impact on some women’s* lives.
Research suggests that women experiencing at least one problematic menopausal symptom are more likely to have left their jobs or reduced their working hours by the age of 55 than those experiencing no severe symptoms.
Some people are concerned, however, about the message this gives – that a natural life stage that happens to over half of the population needs to be defined as a disability for women to get the right support.
Fear of stigma
The House of Common’s Women and Equalities Committee recently looked into the issue. A survey conducted by the committee found only 12% of women sought workplace adjustments for their menopausal symptoms with 25% citing fear of stigma as the reason. (Guidance here on how we can break this taboo.)
The committee subsequently called for the government to launch a consultation on introducing menopause as a protected characteristic, in the same way as pregnancy. It also called on the government to immediately enact Section 14 of the Equality Act, which would allow claims based on combined discrimination, for example sex and age. This would mean discrimination claims on the grounds of disability would no longer be the only option for women experiencing menopause. It would also provide better protection for disabled women going through menopause.
Disability and menopause, in this sense, is rarely discussed. Even though disabled women, of course, experience menopause. The TUC states that menopause can exacerbate existing health conditions and disabilities such as multiple sclerosis (MS), due to menopause medications reacting with existing treatments.
A pre-existing disability may also increase menopausal symptoms and make it harder for disabled women to get support, due to symptoms only being viewed through the lens of disability.
We have heard from some disabled women that increased awareness of menopause amongst employers may actually be leading to increased discrimination
Working through the menopause
Employers and the economy are heavily reliant on women who are experiencing menopause. There are currently 4.5 million women aged 50 to 64 in employment and the number of working women with menopause is increasing. At the same time, government statistics show 39% of women and men in this age group state disability and ill health as their main reason for not working.
Separate Bupa research suggests 900,000 women have left work because of menopausal symptoms. But how many women are out of work because they are experiencing both disability and menopause and finding a lack of support makes the combination unworkable?
Sadly, we have heard from some disabled women that increased awareness of menopause amongst employers may actually be leading to increased discrimination.
Support for menopause at work
How can women get the support they need when so much stigma exists?
Firstly, allowing women to choose who they speak to about their menopause symptoms is important. For example, a woman may not want to speak to a male line manager, and in some religions women are not allowed to discuss these issues with men.
Of course, it’s not solely about the gender of a line manager – it’s also about the approach. Where the employee and the manager are both women, the response can sometimes be: “Well I have to put up with it, so why are you any different?” We need to let women decide who they feel confident confiding in and put systems in place to allow this to happen.
We also need to trust women to know what they need regarding support and adjustments. Well-meaning employers may look to increase understanding by distributing large amounts of detailed information about menopause. While this approach may tick a box and make everyone think they are an instant expert on the matter, it doesn’t actually remove barriers nor reflect the myriad of lived experiences: every woman’s journey is different.
Flexible working is ‘out of date’ and we instead need to implement ‘working flexibly’. The difference is crucial.
Workplace adjustments are often talked about only in the context of disability, but in reality, adjustments can be used to help remove barriers for everyone.
We hear from our members that one of the key reasons employees in many different life situations do not access the support offered is because they do not realise it’s for ‘them’.
If you have a workplace adjustment process which is about making sure all staff have what they need, make sure your communications reflect that. Calling your adjustment service something for disabled employees will mean employees won’t use it unless they identify as being disabled. Ensure the language, images and communications are in plain and inclusive language so that people read about getting support and then think ‘This is for me’.
It would be easy to list suggested adjustments to support someone going through menopause, but we want to encourage employers to recognise the key thread running throughout inclusion agendas: everyone is different.
Flexible working does not go far enough
Inclusive employers do not need to give managers long lists of adjustments for different scenarios, conditions or life circumstances. They need to train people to listen to their employees’ own experiences and put solutions in place. Never is this more important than with menopause, where symptoms may change regularly and/or over time.
This is why many of our members say flexible working is ‘out of date’ and we instead need to implement ‘working flexibly’. The difference is crucial. Instead of a ‘one off’ request from the employee resulting in a rigid agreement about how they will work differently, working flexibly is the belief that our lives and bodies can change. We can experience different symptoms without planning or warning, and we may have to work differently each day so that our employers can get the best out of us.
Empowering everyone to thrive
This is arguably the first generation of women to be employed across all sectors and in senior positions during this key life stage. Employers risk losing significant talent, knowledge and expertise if they do not show a willingness to listen and make (often small) changes that enable women to remain in work.
As to whether or not menopause is a disability – it doesn’t matter. Why wouldn’t you make adjustments to keep any valued employee in work? Every woman’s experience of menopause is different. Ultimately, this is about trust and empowering everyone to thrive.
*Business Disability Forum understands that not everyone who experiences menopause will identify as a woman. The points raised and advice given in this article apply equally to other people experiencing menopause, regardless of how they identify.