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A female member of An Garda Siochána Shutterstock/Agnieszka Pas
VOICES

Opinion Menopause is a workplace issue - it must be addressed as such by employers

According to employment expert Katie Ridge BL, a culture shift regarding menopause is underway, although change is slow.

LAST UPDATE | 21 Feb 2023

TODAY, AN GARDA Síochána published a menopause guidance document to support women serving in its ranks. It offers support to supervisors and colleagues of those experiencing menopause and highlights the resources available.

Releasing the document, the Garda brief said it aims to foster a culture where “personnel in An Garda Síochána can talk about menopause, without fear or embarrassment, and with respect for privacy.”

So, why does it matter? What possible difference can a mere document like this make to the lives of women in the police force or indeed, to women working in any organisation?

Well, employers are starting to see the importance of a shift in culture when it comes to menopause. It is acknowledged that the workplace has a direct influence on the health and well-being of all employees; however, there are substantial differences in the working lives of women and men and this affects their occupational health and safety outcomes.

Health of labour force

A well-functioning labour market with a highly qualified workforce that can rapidly acquire new skills is increasingly seen as a prerequisite for delivering a dynamic and competitive economy. Being engaged in performing quality work and having job security have long been top of the list for employees together with a good work-life balance.

Actions to improve work–life balance must take into account the gender-specific differences between men and women in the workplace. It should also be recognised that women are not a homogeneous group [indeed the same applies to men]. This diversity must be taken into account in a holistic approach.

The most obvious sex or gender-specific difference is the occurrence of menopause.
Menopause is a normal and natural ageing process for women, which usually happens between the ages of 45-55 although it can happen any time up to the mid 60’s age range and premature menopause can affect women in their 30s. Other considerations include menopause as a consequence of hysterectomy or endometriosis. Transgender men and people who are intersex or identify as non-binary may also experience menopause and the symptoms that go with it.

Some statistics:

  • According to the Central Statistics Office there were approximately 2.6 million persons aged between 15-89 years in the labour force in Ireland in Q3 2022, using standard International Labour Organisation (ILO) criteria. The number of females was 1,242,200
  • In the general population, approximately 600,000 women are affected by menopause at any one time; some 350,000 of whom are in the workplace
  • Menopause symptoms can last for between 4-8 years
  • Up to 60% of women experiencing menopausal symptoms report that it has a negative impact on their work

Legislation

While some women may cope well with the physical and emotional changes triggered by menopause others may struggle. Both of these challenges can be exacerbated when Menopause is a taboo subject or a topic to make fun of in the workplace with many women hiding their menopause in order to avoid workplace stigma or discrimination.

Many women may find that managing the symptoms of menopause means they miss out on promotions and training, reduce their hours, lose confidence in the workplace and see their pay levels drop, all contributing to a widening gender pay gap.

Legal issues may emerge in respect of discrimination on grounds of gender, disability and/or age under the Employment Equality Acts and hazard or risk control measures may arise in respect of the Health and Safety Law. There is also the Public Sector Duty under section 42 of the IHREC Act 2014 that requires public bodies to have regard to the need to eliminate discrimination, promote equality and protect the human rights of staff and people availing of their services.

Gender discrimination

The Employment Equality Acts 1998 – 2015 prohibit the discriminatory treatment of employees because of their gender or sex [direct discrimination]. This would arise when menopause symptoms are treated differently from other medical conditions. Indirect discrimination may arise when an employer’s way of working or policies puts a woman with menopause at a disadvantage unless their treatment can be objectively justified.

In the UK case of Merchant v BT PLC 2012, an employee was found to have suffered from direct sex discrimination and unfair dismissal. Ms Merchant was dismissed for poor performance but her manager did not take into account her menopausal symptoms, even though she had given the manager a letter from her GP outlining her impaired concentration.

The manager should have investigated her health problems linked to her menopause further but instead, he made assumptions based on his knowledge of the experience of his wife and a colleague. The tribunal decided that the manager would never have adopted “this bizarre and irrational approach with other non-female-related conditions” or treated a man suffering from ill health with comparable symptoms in this way.

Disability discrimination

The Employment Equality Acts provide protections for persons accessing or in the workplace that have a disability. Disability as defined by the EEA includes “both the total or partial absence of a person’s bodily or mental functions” and “a condition, illness or disease which affects a person’s thought processes, perception of reality, emotions or judgement”.

It also includes a disability imputed to a person. Where the threshold of disability is established, all employers are obliged subject to a disproportionate burden cost, to provide reasonable accommodations for persons with a disability. This requires the employer to take affirmative action to meet the needs of disabled persons in the workforce.

In some instances menopausal symptoms may be classified as meeting the definition of a disability, accordingly, the employer should agree appropriate accommodations with the employee.

There has been limited case law around the issue of menopause in Ireland to date. In Rotunda Hospital v Siobhan McNally EDA 2148/2021 the Complainant brought claims on grounds of gender and disability alleging victimisation, non-provision of training, failure to provide reasonable accommodation and harassment. On the disability grounds the Complainant stated that she suffered from stress and the effects of menopause.

A final determination of the Labour Court is awaited in that case. In the case of Ann O’Kane v Health Service Executive West EDA084/2007 the Claimant unsuccessfully alleged that she was discriminated against on age grounds in circumstances where menopause queries had been directed to her during an internal interview process. In that case, the Labour Court held that no inference of discrimination could be drawn given that the complainant’s age was not referred to at any point.

Health & safety

Employers have statutory duties to provide and maintain facilities and arrangements for the welfare of employees at work under the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005. This includes a duty to make a suitable and sufficient assessment of the workplace risks to the health and safety of their employees.

Risk assessments should consider the specific needs of menopausal workers and ensure the working environment will not make their symptoms worse.

Issues that need consideration include temperature and ventilation. The assessments should also address welfare issues, such as toilet facilities and access to cold drinking water. Employers should bear in mind that all workplaces are different. For example, in some workplaces, it is not possible to open windows to improve ventilation. Employees who wear a uniform will be less able to change the type of clothing they are wearing when they are having hot flashes or sweating.

Specific statutory protection for menopause?

While the first legislative provision for menstrual leave can be traced back to the Soviet Union where it was introduced in 1922 [it fell off the agenda in 1991] and Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, and Zambia all have some form of menstrual leave within their employment framework, at present, there is no country in Europe that recognises any rights to menopause leave for women.

Whereas the EU has championed effective citizen rights under the banner of ‘The European Pillar of Social Rights Action Plan’ which ‘pillars’ include equal opportunities and access to labour markets and have promoted a broad range of alternative initiatives such as measures promoting work-life balance and minimum standards of parental/care leave, no protections have been advocated to address menopause as a workplace issue.

Limiting menopause to the medical and private sphere and the failure to address menopause as a workplace issue is increasingly leading to insufficient protection of female workers and the early exit of women from labour markets, thereby increasing the risk of women’s economic dependence, poverty and social exclusion, contribute to the loss of women’s knowledge, skills and experience, and lead to significant economic losses.

Rights-based frameworks have led and supported inclusivity and diversity in the workplace on issues of race, gender, and generational differences. It’s time to put menopause on the agenda.

Katie Ridge BL is Head of Employer Relations at AdareHRM. She has practical HR experience combined with substantial employment law knowledge. Katie will be one of the speakers at the National Menopause Summit in the Mansion House in Dublin on 23 March. Tickets here.

VOICES

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