Pause for thought

Full disclosure, I talk about menopause in this piece. If that makes you squirm, please read on. It’s important.

What has traditionally been a taboo topic is being talked about more and more of late; and for good reason. Menopause is a medical condition which affects 50% of the population. It occurs when a woman’s hormone levels (oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone) fall. Symptoms include hot flushes, night sweats, insomnia, brain fog, difficulty concentrating, decreasing short term memory, bladder and urinary issues, depression, anxiety, nervousness, mood swings, headaches and heart palpitations.

The average age of menopause in New Zealand is 52. According to the Australian Menopause Society most women will have symptoms for 5 to 10 years. For some the symptoms will be mild, for others debilitating; all at a stage when women are at the peak of their experience in the workplace.

As a female employment and health and safety lawyer, who is yet to reverse the aging process, this got me thinking about the impact of menopause on women in the workplace. What I found was mildly terrifying:

  • Statistics show that around 45 % of women in Australia consider leaving their job or taking an extended break because of menopause. 75% feel unsupported by their employer. I should point out that the reason for the Australian statistics is that Australia is seen as a world leader in tackling menopause, alongside the UK.
  • In the UK the menopause has been successfully argued as grounds for direct discrimination as well as a reason for a woman’s unfair dismissal. UK Employment Tribunals cited the claimant’s menopause in five cases in 2018, six cases in 2019 and sixteen in 2020.  The claimant’s menopause was cited by ten Employment Tribunals in the first half of 2021 alone.
  • A 2019 survey undertaken by BUPA and the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development in the UK found that three in five women at executive level were negatively affected at work and almost 900,000 women left their jobs because of menopause that year. The findings of the survey triggered the establishment of a Parliamentary Inquiry by the House of Commons’ Women and Equalities Committee into Menopause in the Workplace to examine the extent of discrimination faced by menopausal people in the workplace, and investigate how policy and workplace practices can better support those experiencing menopause. At the Committee’s third evidence session in January 2022, high profile employment lawyers told MPs that businesses lack clarity over their obligations to those going through menopause. It was also suggested that menopause should be legally protected under employment law, potentially as a protected characteristic.
  • A survey conducted by the same Committee, published in February 2022, found that just one in 10 women had asked for workplace adjustments, with the most common adjustment being flexible working arrangements and better temperature control for their work environment.
  • The impact of menopause is thought to contribute to the gender pay gap and disparity in superannuation funds between men and women because some women are leaving the workforce early. This is compounded for those women who have children and do not earn over this time.
  • Women in executive-level roles talk openly of quitting their jobs because they thought they were suffering from early onset dementia. It hadn’t even occurred to them that it was just the menopause. Far too many talk of being too embarrassed to talk about such a personal topic and suffering in silence until it gets too much and they walk away from their decades-long career.

If overseas jurisdictions are anything to go by, there is a growing wave of women who are feeling empowered to challenge their employers for failing to recognise the impact the menopause can have on their ability to perform their roles. Much of this stems from the topic being considered taboo and the lack of information available to both employees and employers. New Zealand is no exception. There is no Parliamentary Inquiry in New Zealand. In fact, no Government department has any information or guidance for employers on the menopause.

New Zealand does have the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015, however, which requires employers (as PCBUs) to take reasonably practicable steps to ensure the health and safety of its workers whilst at work. The obligation covers mental and physical health and, in my opinion, undoubtedly requires employers to take into account the impact of menopause on their employees’ health and wellbeing at work. We also have the Human Rights Act 1993 which protects employees from discrimination on the grounds of gender, disability and age. In a recent UK case, the Employment Appeal Tribunal found that an employee with debilitating menopausal symptoms had a disability.  Although a different jurisdiction, a case like this should not be ignored and is indicative of the kind of litigation we could see in New Zealand.

And now for the good news – the great thing about the menopause is that it’s not permanent and there are some pretty simple steps that can be put in place to protect women’s health and ultimately retain them and their knowledge. Things like:

  • education on the health impacts of menopause for all employees;
  • workplace policies which acknowledge that the menopause is a health condition and set out the support available for employees (which could be as simple as letting employees know who they should speak to or go to for external support or could go as far as offering flexible working arrangements or extra paid leave for those in need);
  • improving ventilation in workplaces and making it easier to control the temperature; and
  • training for male managers on having difficult conversations with the women they work with.

The most obvious and, perhaps, the most powerful step being to start the conversation. Saying the word out loud.

Let’s kōrero. It’s important.

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Gwen Drewitt