Jane Hartman-Jemmett CFIOSH argues that there’s a blind spot around menopause in the workplace.
Much has been said in the media of late about menopause, finally allowing what some women feel is the last taboo to be openly discussed.
Women make up more than half of the UK population, yet continue to live and work in a world designed for men. The exposing of gender bias (as described so well by Caroline Criado Perez in her book Invisible Women) needs to extend into menopause.
Since the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations were introduced in 1999, employers have been required to assess risk. One group, new and expectant mothers, even has its own regulations. Why doesn’t menopause have the same?
Women aged 45 to 54 make up 11% of all people in employment and 23% of all women in employment in the UK (TUC, 2021). Add to this those women in perimenopause, which can start as early as the 30s, and we have a significant proportion of the UK workforce who cannot – and should not – be ignored.
Symptoms of menopause and perimenopause include everything from low mood, brain fog and anxiety to hot flushes, muscle aches, changes in body shape and weight gain.
What would you do?
Consider this: you are a line manager in a domestic electrical installation company and one of your electricians starts to demonstrate mood swings and forgetfulness. Their PPE no longer fits, plus they have repeated absences with vague reasons. Ask yourself what you would think. You may wonder if an addiction has got out of hand. What would you do? Tackling the issue would hopefully start with an exploratory chat, but if the employee can’t explain the symptoms, it could lead to – in the worst-case scenario – a verbal warning.
Nearly a million UK women have left the workforce due to menopausal symptoms and the lack of support to help manage them (TUC, 2021). The UK government recently rejected MPs’ call to introduce menopause leave over fears it could discriminate against men with long-term health conditions. The TUC is calling on the UK government to adopt a strategic role in raising awareness of menopause in workplaces and make flexible working a legal right. I would argue this doesn’t go far enough.
Raising awareness needs to extend to a requirement for the GB Health and Safety Executive (HSE) guidance on risk assessment to apply to perimenopausal and menopausal workers in the same way that it does to pregnant workers and new mothers (HSE, 2022).
So, with our new knowledge about menopause, let’s revisit our electrician. The company has a menopause policy, formal management training and a process on the issue, including health and safety campaigns. How do you think the conversation would go?
What GB HSE says about OSH and menopause...
Health and safety law protects all workers from the risks arising from the work activity or workplace. There are no specific legal requirements under health and safety law for those experiencing menopausal symptoms; however, we would expect employers to engage with workers and review risk assessments when there is a change, such as the impact of menopause symptoms, that could mean the current risk assessment is no longer valid.
The HSE launched new, strengthened guidance in November 2022 that gives a set of clear and simple principles that employers would be expected to apply to support disabled people and those with long-term health conditions in the work environment. The principles and guidance could also apply to other health conditions or where workers are experiencing symptoms, such as those that occur during menopause. The new guidance contains talking toolkits that can help employers to start simple and practical conversations with workers. Starting a conversation is an important first step towards supporting a worker. The new guidance can be found on the HSE’s website: bit.ly/HSE-principles
- Acas guidance on managing the effects of menopause: menopause at work: bit.ly/ACAS-menopause
- HSE overview of managing risks and risk assessment at work: bit.ly/HSE-risks
- New talking toolkits on supporting disabled workers and workers with long-term health conditions: bit.ly/HSE-talking
The employee and manager could identify symptoms and have a constructive discussion about how they are affecting performance. Tasks, flexible working or redeployment (until the brain fog has passed) can then be reassessed considering the risks and additional controls put in place. Policies, processes and formal guidance from HSE to help managers assess the risk of the employees’ symptoms would mean that not only are more women likely to remain in the workplace, but they would do so safely.
Brown C. (2022) Women are leaving their job due to lack of support over menopause. The HR Director. (accessed 15 December 2022).
Channel 4. (2021) Davina McCall, sex, myths and the menopause. (accessed (15 December 2022).
HSE. (2022) Protecting pregnant workers and new mothers. (accessed 15 December 2022).
Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations. (1999) See: https://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/1999/3242/contents/made (accessed 15 December 2022).
NHS. (2022) Menopause: symptoms. (accessed 15 December 2022).
ONS. (2022) Population and household estimates, England and Wales: census. (accessed 15 December 2022).
Perez CC. (2019) Invisible women: exposing the data bias in a world designed for men. Chato & Windus: London.
TUC. (2021) Menopause and the workplace. (accessed 15 December 2022).