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October has been designated as World Menopause Month by the World Health Organisation and the International Menopause Society. In Ireland, there are approximately 600,000 women affected by perimenopausal or menopause at any one time. Up to 60% of women experiencing menopausal symptoms report that it has a negative impact on their work. And, approximately 8% of participants in research studies on the menopause have felt the need to leave their employment due to the effects of menopause.
Given the number of women who may be impacted by the menopause, in this week’s article, Katie Ridge, Head of Employer Relations at Adare Human Resource Management looks at how employers can support employees going through the menopause.
What makes it a Workplace Issue?
While some women may cope well with the physical and emotional changes triggered by menopause others may struggle both. These challenges can be exacerbated when Menopause is a taboo subject or a topic to make fun of in the workplace.
Many women may find that managing the symptoms of menopause mean they miss out on promotions and training, reduce their hours, lose confidence in the workplace and see their pay levels drop, all contributing to a widening gender pay gap.
Legal issues may emerge in respect of discrimination on grounds of gender, disability and/or age under the Employment Equality Acts and hazard / risk control measures may arise in respect of the Health and Safety Law. There is also the Public Sector Duty under the section 42 of the IHREC Act 2014 that requires public bodies to have regard to the need to eliminate discrimination, promote equality and protect human rights of staff and people availing of their services.
The Employment Equality Acts 1998 – 2015 prohibit the discriminatory treatment of employees because of their gender/sex [direct discrimination]. This would arise where menopause symptoms are treated differently from other medical conditions. Indirect discrimination may arise when an employer’s way of working or policies puts a woman with menopause at a disadvantage unless their treatment can be objectively justified.
In the UK case of Merchant v BT PLC 2012, the employee was found to have suffered from direct sex discrimination and an unfair dismissal. Ms Merchant was dismissed for poor performance but her manager failed to take into account her menopausal symptoms, even though she had given the manager a letter from her GP outlining her impaired concentration. The manager should have investigated her health problems linked to her menopause further but instead he made stereotypical assumptions based on his knowledge of the experience of his wife and a colleague.
The tribunal decided that the manager would never have adopted “this bizarre and irrational approach with other non-female-related conditions” or treated a man suffering from ill health with comparable symptoms in this way.
The Employment Equality Act provides protections for persons accessing or in the workplace that have a disability. The definition of disability in the Act is expansive and includes certain mental health issues or particular medical conditions, which are potentially chronic, debilitating or that get worse over time. All employers are obliged subject to a disproportionate burden cost, to provide reasonable accommodations for persons with a disability. This requires the employer to take affirmative action to meet the needs of disabled persons in the workforce. In some instances, menopausal symptoms may be classified as meeting the definition of a disability, accordingly the employer should agree appropriate accommodations with the employee.
In the case of Davies v Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service 2018, the employee was found to be unfairly dismissed and to have suffered from disability discrimination. The tribunal considered that Ms Davies was disabled as defined by the Equality Act because of the substantial and long-term menopausal symptoms which caused memory loss and confusion. A mix-up occurred at work about whether her medication had been added to a jug of water or not. The workplace disciplinary panel decided that she had deliberately misled them and she was dismissed for gross misconduct. This dismissal meant that the employee was treated unfavourably because of something arising in consequence of her disability i.e. the menopausal symptoms. The employment tribunal found that the action of dismissal was not justified.
Given that menopause is usually age-related, employers need to be aware of potential age discrimination exposures they may be open to. For example, 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. If an Organisation were to sanction or dismiss such employee for poor performance or conduct with no enquiry as to whether there is any underlying cause, they could easily find themselves defending an age discrimination claim.
What should employers be doing?
Positive messaging and information – Ensure that in your workplace menopause is treated appropriately and that guidance on dealing with the menopause is available. Encourage employees to speak up if they are struggling at work because of their symptoms.
Flexible Work Systems – review your wellbeing and health policies to allow for flexible working, check that your sickness absence procedures allow time off if needed for health appointments, look at the facility of more breaks to help your employees during this time of their menopausal transition. Better still, create a Menopause specific policy
Supports – put formal and informal supports in place and signpost them for all employees; this can include a point of contact, a well-being champion and access to your Employee Assistance Programme.
Provide Menopause Awareness training for contact persons and line managers.
If your Organisation needs support in devising and implementing appropriate training programmes, please get in touch with our expert-led team at Shannon Chamber HR.
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