Work and menopause

Published in Solidarity 701.

Menopause at work hit the headlines on 22 February as the Equality and Human Rights Commission issued new guidance on the issue. However, the guidance only affirmed what the law has been for the last fourteen years, and the fact that news coverage trumpeted it as a breakthrough can only mean that employers have not been following the law.

Is menopause a disability?

The key point in the EHRC’s guidance is that severe menopause symptoms may well be classed as a disability under the 2010 Equality Act. That is not news to trade unionists who have been representing women who meet the Act’s definition of “disability” as a physical or mental impairment that has a long-term [more than 12 months], substantial [anything more than minor or trivial] adverse impact on the person’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.

Many women experience menopause symptoms for a lot longer than twelve months, and yes, sleep disturbance, brain fog, hot flushes and other effects can certainly have a substantial impact. Medication sometimes has debilitating side effects, and some women can not take the medication, for example women who have had hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer.

With only 12 per cent of respondents to a 2022 survey by the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee having sought any workplace adjustments, the guidance is certainly helpful. Workers and union representatives will be able to use it to up the pressure on intransigent employers to afford menopausal women who qualify as disabled their legal rights to reasonable adjustments and not to be discriminated against.

Leaving work because of menopause?

Research by the Fawcett Society published two years ago found that one in ten women workers surveyed left their jobs due to menopause symptoms. And research by The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development published last year found that two thirds of working women aged between 40 and 60 who experienced menopausal symptoms said that they had a mostly negative impact on them at work.

However, I suggest that we frame this differently. It is not the menopause that caused these women to leave their jobs or suffer at work — it is work itself. Shiftwork, long hours, poor ventilation, workload and management bullying are all factors that make work difficult or impossible for menopausal women.

Menopause is natural; work is not

Menopause is a natural part of a woman’s reproductive lifecycle. Work is organised in a specific way under a specific economic system: capitalism.

In order to accommodate women who are going through the menopause, work needs to change.

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