Good news for women going through menopause in the workplace

cartoon showing a woman having a menopause hot flush in an office setting

Today’s news that menopause symptoms can be considered a disability, with employers facing the prospect of being sued if they do not make reasonable adjustments, is a massive step forward for the UK.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has issued guidance so that employers cannot simply dismiss the experiences of menopause in the workplace. Thankfully, it’s no longer to be viewed as a minor inconvenience, but something that has an impact on around 50 per cent of the workforce.

This is a much-needed clarification of the Equality Act 2010 by the EHRC. Which ruled that failure to make “reasonable adjustment” amounts to disability discrimination if – and here’s the important detail – the symptoms have a “long-term and substantial impact” on an employee’s ability to carry out their usual day-to-day activities.

It is rare to experience menopause, or indeed perimenopause, without any symptoms that make a “long-term and substantial impact.” And perimenopause, which can start as early as the late thirties, is often the worst part.

Hot flushes, night sweats, fatigue, brain fog, disturbed sleep, painful breasts, debilitatingly heavy periods and unexpected periods that feel like a hellish farewell-to-fertility concert. It’s an onerous list of symptoms that can last a decade. On top of all that, the risk factor for ovarian and uterine cancer increase. As does the risk of endometriosis and its lesser-known evil sister, adenomyosis.

Symptoms can be debilitating

Sam Harrington-Lowe, Silver’s editor-in-chief, recalls her own experiences of the menopause, especially the brain fog, poor sleep and painful periods: “My sleep patterns were all over the place, my periods were both agonising and biblical in output, I couldn’t risk leaving the house some days. But perhaps the worst thing was the brain fog. My mind, normally the thing I’m most proud of, just stopped working properly – it was actually quite frightening.”

Read more: Menopause and brain fog, will I ever think clearly again?

Over on Twitter (or X or whatever it’s called these days…), the response has been largely positive to this news. That said, @AudreySuffolk makes an important point about the use of disability language by the EHRC. “A lot of social media discussion about women experiencing menopause being disabled under the Equality Act demonstrate some worrying thinking about acceptance of negative attitudes to disability and work. Disability isn’t and shouldn’t be a slur.”

This is an important and powerful reminder. After all, if a colleague is in a wheelchair and needs reasonable adjustments, such as a ramp to access a building, this is considered a positive thing. Equally, we need to look at making reasonable adjustments for the menopause as a positive way to improve the lives of our colleagues and productivity overall.

This should be a time to shine

The menopausal decade should be one of our most productive times. We have experience and knowledge to impart, no matter what we do for a living. We are assets to any organisation and it is outrageous that menopausal symptoms can cut us down when we should be in our prime.

However, in the real world, there is still a long way to go, even in workplaces that are not horrific sweatshops. @sambakey tweeted that her male supervisor is “lovely and I can talk to him.” But that it’s “impossible to find anything regarding menopause on our intranet” in regard to workplace health.

Then we had the unedifying spectacle of Quentin Letts on Good Morning Britain making light of menopause in response to the EHRC announcement. He likened menopausal symptoms to older men suffering from dodgy knees or needing to take a nap after wine at lunch. The last thing anyone in the grip of a particularly ferocious hot flush or a wild menopausal mood swing needs is unhelpful mansplaining of menopause on the telly.

@Holly_Pocketses tweeted: “Quentin Letts ill-advised input into a discussion about the menopause was disgraceful. Comparing the condition to his own ailments – having ‘hurty’ knees and needing a nap after wine at lunch was insulting to say the least.”

Cautiously positive

Hopefully, today’s news will be the catalyst for employers everywhere to make sure they introduce solid menopause policies. Everyone should feel comfortable talking about menopause at work and be understanding when a colleague needs to be accommodated because of menopause symptoms.

Sam Harrington-Lowe sums up what the new guidance should mean for so many women – and what more needs to be done. “I cannot imagine how horrific it would have been to deal with menopause in a 9-5 work structure. The time at work, the commuting, having to deal with people. Thank goodness we finally have some safeguards in place to support women dealing with this, although frankly, I’d like to see some support given to women having periods every month as this can also be debilitating.”

Read all about it

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About Georgia Lewis
In a career that has spanned Australia, the Middle East and the UK, Georgia has written about all sorts of things, including sex, cars, food, oil and gas, insurance, fashion, travel, workplace safety, health, religious affairs, glass and glazing... When she's not writing words for fun and profit, she can usually be found with a glass of something French and red in her hand.

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