On Wednesday, the government faced criticism for its rejection of a number of measures put forward by the Women and Equalities Commission in July last year to support women in the workplace experiencing menopause.
Specifically, in its response to the report Menopause and the workplace, the government rejected a proposal to develop and pilot a menopause leave policy with a large public sector organisation, as well as dismissing the proposal to make menopause a protected characteristic under the Equalities Act, among others. The government’s rationale for doing so was that such moves could be counterproductive to its focus on encouraging employers to implement workplace menopause policies, although it did not specify exactly how.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the majority of reactions to the news were critical of the government’s actions. With menopausal women comprising one of the fastest growing workplace demographics, there is clearly a need for support. This is backed up by studies, such as that published by the Fawcett Society in May 2022, which found that eight in 10 of the more than 4,000 respondents said their workplace had no basic support in place, while 81% of menopausal women felt every employer should have an action plan around the menopause.
With menopausal symptoms including hot flushes, difficulty sleeping, anxiety, mood changes, headaches and migraines, and brain fog, it can prove quite debilitating for some individuals, impacting day-to-day life, including their performance at work.
A difficulty both employers and employees face, however, is the low frequency with which open, honest conversations about what an employee is experiencing typically occur. Menopause remains a topic that many still prefer not to discuss, particularly with their employer. Added to this is the fact that the nature of its symptoms means some women do not realise they are experiencing menopause for some time after symptoms begin. The first step, therefore, has to be creating an open culture in which such conversations are encouraged and employees feel comfortable asking their employer for the support they need without fear of judgment or reprisal.
Even with the best of intentions, when resources and budgets are stretched, employers may not be able to provide the level of support they would like. Without government support, therefore, some may simply be unable to follow through on their intention of supporting staff.
In my opinion, there is no question that menopause should be added as a protected characteristic, due to the potential severity of its symptoms, which can impact an individual’s ability to perform and carry out their day-to-day role.
But does rejecting a pilot menopause leave scheme potentially open up scope for employers to shape a policy that best fits the needs of their workforce and business, be this menopause leave, access to information and guidance, support networks, additional flexibility in working hours and patterns, or modifications to job roles and/or the working environment? The government’s acceptance of the Women and Equalities Commission’s recommendation to appoint a menopause ambassador suggests menopause, as an issue, is likely to stay on its agenda. It is now up to MPs and industry to ensure this is the case, rather than the government merely paying lip service to the issue.
Whatever the future holds, one thing the government’s stance has done is to re-open much-needed conversations around the need for, and importance of, menopausal support in the workplace.