This article was originally published in The Journal of the Law Society of Scotland.
“Everybody gets menopause – just get on with it.” This is essentially what the company director of Thistle Marine (Peterhead), Jim Clark, said to his employee, Karen Farquharson, when she called in sick to work after experiencing heavy menopausal bleeding. It cost the company just over £37,000 after Mrs Farquharson, who had worked there for 27 years, won her claim for unfair dismissal and harassment in a judgment dated 12 July 2023.
The Aberdeen employment tribunal heard that Clark dismissed her medical problems, which also included anxiety and brain fog, as “aches and pains” and told Farquharson she used the menopause as an “excuse for everything”. Judge Hendry, in upholding Farquharson’s claims, said Clark “no doubt has many admirable qualities but empathy for others is not among them”, concluding that his remarks had violated her dignity.
In July 2022, the Women & Equalities Committee published its Menopause and the Workplace report, which identified that women over the age of 50 represent the fastest-growing group in the workforce. Most of these women will go through the menopause during their working lives. The report also said that employers’ lack of support for menopausal symptoms is pushing highly skilled and experienced women out of work. This aligns with the CIPD’s research carried out in 2019, which found that 59% of women experiencing menopausal symptoms said it had a negative impact on their work.
Responding to the report, earlier this year, the UK Government decided against making menopause a new protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010. It decided that sex, disability, and age (already protected characteristics) provided protection against discrimination and harassment that someone may be subjected to because of the menopause. In Farquharson’s case, for example, the protected characteristic relied on was sex.
On 2 October 2023, Baroness Kishwer Falkner, chair of the Equality & Human Rights Commission (EHRC) said: “We will soon be launching new guidance for employers, so they have the resources to ensure they are looking after their staff who are going through the menopause, and we will encourage all employers to use it.”
The EHRC is supporting a case which will be heard in the Leicester employment tribunal this month. An employee (Ms Rooney) is claiming that she was discriminated against, harassed, and victimised by her employer, Leicester City Council, on the grounds of disability and sex. The case also involves the first Employment Appeal Tribunal decision that menopause symptoms can amount to a disability for the purposes of the Equality Act, setting a legal precedent.
Baroness Falkner further stated: “Menopause symptoms can significantly affect someone’s ability to work. Employers have a responsibility to support employees going through the menopause – it is to their benefit to do so, and the benefit of the wider workforce.”
Understanding and addressing menopause in the workplace is crucial for several reasons, not least to avoid the potential legal implications as outlined above. Providing support can improve an employee’s overall health and wellbeing, meaning they are more likely to remain engaged and productive at work, reducing absenteeism and helping to prevent talent loss. Valuable employees may simply leave organisations that don’t acknowledge their needs.
Menopause remains a largely unspoken topic, particularly within the workplace. Such silence perpetuates a lack of understanding, support and inclusivity, which ultimately harms both employees and employers. To create an inclusive workplace that addresses menopause, employers can do several things:
- Provide awareness programmes to educate employees and leaders about menopause, as well as encourage conversations to debunk any misconceptions around it.
- Offer flexible working or remote work options to accommodate employees experiencing menopausal symptoms, such as fatigue or sleep disturbances.
- Ensure employees have access to confidential resources and health professionals who can provide guidance and support.
- Develop clear policies and guidelines addressing menopause-related issues, including how to request accommodations and who to contact for assistance.
- Consider creating designated quiet spaces where employees can rest and manage their symptoms when needed.
- Establish channels for employees to discuss their needs and concerns regarding menopause, whether through HR, managers, or support groups.
The EHRC’s guidance will likely be of assistance when it is released. In the meantime, employers should note that October is Menopause Awareness Month. This provides an excellent opportunity to start conversations if you haven’t already, dispel common myths and misinformation around menopause (it’s more than just hot flushes, and can start earlier than the average age of 51!), and help break the stigma surrounding the menopause – always remembering there is no “one size fits all”.