Menopause gift bags and monitoring toilet breaks: why are employers getting menopause support so wrong?

What should employers be doing to provide adequate menopause support and why are so many getting it wrong, asks Natasha LetchfordA recent story involving Avanti West Coast, who provided a gift bag to staff experiencing menopause, is the latest in a series of misjudgements of menopause support by employers. The bag contained items such as a fan “for the hot sweats”, a jelly baby “in case you feel like biting someone’s head off” and a paper clip “to help you keep it all together”. The ASLEF Union suggested that rather than “insulting gimmicks” Avanti should focus their efforts on developing workplace policies and procedures that “value and support perimenopausal and menopausal women”. So what should employers be doing to provide adequate support and why are so many getting it wrong?

Despite calls for menopause to be included in the list of protected characteristics by campaigning groups and the women and equalities committee, the government confirmed last year that this would not be introduced. This means that there is no legal obligation for employers to support employees going through the menopause unless the effects on a particular employee are so severe that they meet the definition of a disability under the Equality Act 2010 or they constitute a health and safety concern.

There have been a handful of successful cases brought to date, but the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), who oversee equality legislation in Britain, have expressed concern that women experiencing menopause-related symptoms are being forced out of their jobs and don’t feel safe enough to request workplace adjustments. In response, the EHRC has issued new guidance which reiterates that symptoms may amount to a disability for which an employer should make reasonable adjustments. The guidance also reminds employers that workers may be protected against less favourable treatment on the grounds of age and sex, although these claims have been more difficult to establish in the courts.

It has been suggested that the lack of clear legal obligations and male-dominated management in some sectors has resulted in a workplace culture that fails to acknowledge or provide practical support for those experiencing menopause symptoms.

Additional guidance aimed at aiding employers’ understanding of menopause symptoms and how to best support their staff, as well as providing guidance to those experiencing symptoms about how to ask for support, the Acas guidance suggests a number of measures that employers could introduce, including:

  • Training managers about the effects of menopause and ensure they feel able to have sensitive and constructive conversations with staff.
  • Developing a menopause policy setting out the support available and providing a point of contact for those experiencing symptoms.
  • Introducing menopause and wellbeing champions who can provide advice to staff, increase awareness of the effects of a menopause and provide a support network.
  • Managing sickness absence and capability issues in a supportive way, taking into account the effect of menopause symptoms and making changes to help staff continue working, where possible.

In response to the criticism of its gift bag initiative, Avanti said that they had introduced a number of menopause support measures which included guidance for colleagues and managers, creating a support group for staff to allow them to share their experiences and setting up a specialist library giving staff free access to books on the subject.

However, campaign groups and staff who have shared their experiences have emphasised that the key to supporting staff is a culture change. Many believed that their symptoms were treated as a joke and others said they did not have basic dignity at work, with toilet breaks monitored or restricted. Many women felt that they were treated differently and with less compassion than those employees who were pregnant or had medical conditions that were more widely understood.

Offering practical support to those experiencing symptoms and empowering them to be able to have constructive conversations with managers, is also key to supporting staff. Measures such as allowing staff to start work later or work from home were identified as important adjustments for those who experienced disrupted sleep, and for those who suffered from brain fog or anxiety, they felt that the ability to negotiate workloads and deadlines was useful.

The Acas guide highlights some roles and responsibilities which could make it harder for staff to deal with menopause symptoms, for example, where they work long shifts, where they cannot take regular breaks or their job requires a uniform which may cause discomfort. In these cases, the solutions are likely to require some additional thought but should not prevent employers from making adjustments as they would for pregnant or disabled staff.

With half of women who have experienced menopause symptoms saying they have considered reducing their hours or resigning as a result, a sensitive and supportive approach to menopause in the workplace is likely to be beneficial to both employers and employees.