The UK government has rejected the Women and Equalities Committee’s recommendations to pilot a workplace menopause leave policy in England and to consult on making menopause a protected characteristic.
The cross-party House of Commons select committee published its Menopause and the workplace report last July, which put forward 12 recommendations that cover women’s health, menopause in the workplace and legal reform, and gave the government two months to respond.
As the select committee report notes, ‘Women of menopausal age are the fastest growing group in the workforce and are staying in work for longer than ever before. Yet these experienced and skilled role models often receive little support with menopause symptoms. As a result, some cut back their hours or responsibilities [while] others leave work altogether.’
To better support those going through the menopause at work, the Women and Equalities Committee called on the government to appoint a Menopause Ambassador to ‘work with stakeholders from business, unions and advisory groups to encourage and disseminate awareness, good practice and guidance to employers’.
The select committee envisaged that this ambassador would publish a six-monthly report that outlines the progress made by business and includes examples of good practice as well as highlighting particularly poor practice.
The cross-party group also called on the government to pilot a menopause leave policy within a public sector employer, and publish an evaluation, including proposals for further rollout, within 12 months of the scheme’s commencement.
Significantly, the select committee also recommended amending the Equality Act 2010 by calling on the government to launch a consultation no later than the end of 2022 to explore how to introduce menopause as a protected characteristic, as is already the case with pregnancy and maternity.
However, the government’s response , published on 24 January, has rejected five of the committee report’s recommendations outright, notably the menopause leave pilot and the move to make menopause a protected characteristic.
The government has also rejected the recommendation for a national formulary for hormone replacement therapy (HRT) as well as a recommendation to introduce mandatory training for GPs.
Although the government has said that it accepts, partly accepts or accepts in principle six of the recommendations, the Women and Equalities Committee has criticised it for failing to commit to any new work in response to the report.
The select committee’s chair Caroline Nokes MP described the government’s belated response to the report as a ‘missed opportunity to protect vast numbers of talented and experienced women from leaving the workforce’.
She said: ‘For too long women have faced stigma, shame and dismissive attitudes when it comes to menopause. The evidence to our inquiry was crystal clear that urgent action was needed across healthcare and work settings to properly address women’s needs, yet government progress has been glacial and its response complacent.
‘Its refusal to even consult on reforming equalities law doesn’t make sense and we urge it to look again.’
The government, however, has agreed to appoint a Menopause Employment Champion at the Department for Work and Pensions to push work forward with employers on menopause workplace issues and to work closely with Professor Dame Lesley Regan, the Women’s Health Ambassador. It is supportive of the principle of having a six-monthly business progress report, but intends to make a decision once the champion is appointed.
It has also agreed to bring forward legislation before the end of the current Parliament to make the right to request flexible working a day-one right for all employees.
In addition, the government says it will issue ‘employers with guidance that encourages them to grant any reasonable requests for flexible working, rather than placing the burden on the employee to justify their request’.
Sarah Davies, Director and Co-founder of Talking Menopause and the author of an IOSH Magazine article, said: ‘Disappointingly, the government has missed a glaring opportunity to consult on making menopause a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010.
‘We accept that doing so is not the only way to protect and advance menopause rights in the workplace, but it would send a very clear message of support to those people who are experiencing daily challenges and negate the necessity to fall back on the protected characteristics of sex, age or disability.
‘We will watch with interest the appointment and actions of the Menopause Employment Champion and will continue to contribute as much as possible to increase awareness, education and support for menopause in the workplace across the broad range of organisations we work with.
‘Also, menopause medical training has to improve to avoid too much ongoing and unnecessary suffering.
‘Menopause leave is not a priority as those suffering are keen to remain at work and be understood, listened to and appropriately supported often on an ad-hoc basis depending on their symptoms’ challenges. We echo the description of workplace support as being via individualised reasonable adjustments, provision for training across all levels and developing an open, supportive culture.’
Claire McCartney, senior recruitment adviser for the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), highlighted CIPD’s efforts to raise awareness of the importance of creating menopause-friendly workplaces and also welcomed the move to appoint a Menopause Employment Champion.
‘We also fully support the decision to make the right to request flexible working a day one right for employees, which should help to make work more accessible and sustainable for all employees,’ she said.
Despite the government’s response, commentators argue there is much more that employers can do to support women who are affected.
‘For organisations who wish to implement their own menopause policies, or create a menopause friendly workplace, they should start by creating a culture that allows employees to talk about the menopause and if they would like any adjustments that could support them,’ says McCartney.
‘These adjustments could include flexibility in hours, options to work from home, proper ventilation while at work, uniform adaptations, access to rest room facilities, and breaks. Organisations should also train their line managers in workplace support for those experiencing menopause symptoms.‘
IOSH Head of Policy Ruth Wilkinson told IOSH Magazine that because the menopause has many symptoms – physical and mental – it can impact on people differently. This includes a possible impact on an individual’s ability to work, resulting in lost working days, absence, reduced productivity and presentism.
‘Through reviewing research, we have seen that physical and psychosocial factors in the workplace can impact the menopausal experience as well as impacting the ability to work,’ she said.
‘Yet very few workplaces and managers have the awareness, knowledge and understanding of the menopause and how to support those going through it. This is concerning. As with other health issues, people should feel comfortable being able to discuss their symptoms with line managers and others as necessary, be involved in risk assessment processes and be able to request support.’
She added that IOSH didn’t believe that leave from work is the only answer.
‘We encourage employers to consider the menopause in the workplace within a more holistic approach to employee health and wellbeing that puts the spotlight on providing effective management practices, risk assessments, practical support and adjustments,’ she added.
‘We also encourage the provision of information and training and the adoption of an inclusive and supportive workplace culture of an open nature for those experiencing symptoms rather than solely focusing on superficial initiatives.’