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Discussions about women’s health in the workplace have ramped up in recent years, with topics such as the menopause, menstrual and parental leave hitting the headlines, often for the wrong reasons as employers try to negotiate fairer policies and working practices for their employees.

In December 2022, we saw a positive step forward for women’s health when the Government announced a £1.97m funding boost to sixteen organisations striving to improve the health of women in the workplace. These organisations work across a wide array of women’s health issues, including pregnancy loss, menopause, gynaecological care, and fertility, bringing support and awareness of these issues to women and their employers.

A new strategy for women’s health

The fund is linked to the development of the UK’s first Women’s Health Strategy, a landmark 10-year strategy to improve the health and wellbeing of women across the country. Within this strategy, the Government lays out a number of ambitions for supporting women in the workplace, these include:

  • That health conditions and disabilities are no longer a barrier to women’s participation in the workplace
  • That women experiencing women’s health issues such as period problems, endometriosis, fertility treatment, miscarriage and menopause feel well supported in their workplaces
  • That employers feel well-equipped to support their female employees
  • That the Civil Service, NHS, and social care lead the way in tackling taboos and supporting women’s health in the workplace
  • That employers and colleagues are better informed on the potential impact of caring responsibilities on participation in the workplace and other aspects of carers’ lives
Haemorrhaging talent

Shortly before the publication of the Women’s Health Strategy, a public inquiry found that the menopause was a significant contributor to businesses ‘haemorrhaging talent’ as a lack of support from employers was pushing talented women out of the workplace. A House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee’s inquiry in 2021 found that 1 million women in the UK had left their jobs due to menopausal symptoms.

There are currently specific laws relating to menopause in the workplace, but there have been calls to make the condition a protected characteristic under the Equalities Act – a proposal that was rejected by MPs just last month, along with proposed ‘menopause leave’ pilot schemes. Establishing menopause as a protected characteristic would include a “duty to provide reasonable adjustments for menopausal employees”, however the Government has expressed concern that the move could be counterproductive and actually encourage further discrimination.

That doesn’t mean there are no laws in the UK to protect menopausal women; the menopause is a transitional time and can have a profound mental and physical impact on sufferers.

Under the Equality Act 2010 a disability is widely defined as “a physical or mental impairment… [that].. has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on [a person’s] ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities”.

Depending on the particular circumstances it’s possible that the mental or physical impacts of the menopause could be caught by this definition.

’Sex’ is also a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010 meaning a person cannot be treated differently because of their sex.  There can be no justification for less favourable treatment. Employers must also ensure there are no provisions, practices or criterion in the workplace that would be more likely to put someone at a detriment because of their sex (unless, they have objective justification).

It’s important that employers make sure they’re protecting their staff and providing a safe, secure space for women to thrive in the face of these biological challenges.

Proactive not reactive

Ultimately, employers should be proactive, not reactive and seek to broach the subject before it’s raised or becomes an issue.

Education and building a culture of understanding are key to breaking down stereotypes and stamping out stereotypical comments. This educational approach will help prevent employees and employers from acting out stereotypes and assumptions, which are often the beginning of discrimination claims.

Managers must create a safe environment where women feel comfortable talking about issues they’re experiencing. Particularly if their line manager is a man. Women may not feel comfortable speaking to male colleagues, so it’s critical that support and other options are readily available and easily accessible. These could include HR, an employee resource group or welfare officer.

Employees could also consider implementing a judgment-free menopause flexibility scheme that allows women experiencing the menopause to work from home, particularly, if they are experiencing physical discomfort and pain, brain fog, depression, or anxiety.

As the fastest-growing demographic in the workforce, it’s vital that employers take measures now to support their people, embedding an approach to support, retain and attract staff and stamp out the possibility of discrimination before they face a potentially costly legal battle.

Michael Jenkins, Head of Legal Advice, Arc Legal Group

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