In recognition of World Menopause Day 2022, we wanted to reflect in this article on the last twelve months of news on the topic of women’s health in the workplace. This year saw increased interest by European employers in issues such as menopause, menstruation and fertility and how these affect their workforces. Women’s health has been in headlines this year globally as well, particularly with the momentous decision of the United States Supreme Court in Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which effectively overturned the rights to access abortion in cases in the US, Roe v Wade and Planned Parenthood v Casey. This development also sparked a discussion of what an employer’s role could or should be in supporting, maintaining and understanding women’s health (or in fact, the health of any employee).
In the UK, the government closed its consultation on Menopause in the Workplace, and we have written previously (see here) about how the reforms proposed are limited, yet why there remains a strategic rationale for employers to take initiatives, over and above legal requirements, to support employees at work during the menopause (not least to manage broader DEI strategies though also to ensure the pipeline of female talent to senior roles is not unnecessarily hindered). Another headline that stands out is the introduction of paid menstrual leave in Spain, though it remains to be seen whether other countries will follow suit.
The menopause – government reforms fall behind employer initiatives
The UK government’s recently announced reforms in this area seem to be lagging behind what many employers are starting to do to support menopausal employees. Menopause affects 51% of the population and women of menopausal age are the fastest growing demographic in the UK workforce. Retaining women of menopausal age is an issue, however, one which employers are becoming increasingly alive to.
Women experience menopause at different ages and in different ways, with the most common symptoms being fatigue, hot flushes, brain fog and anxiety. More employers are introducing specific menopause policies to cater to women experiencing these symptoms, alongside internal training for managers and wider staff to raise awareness of the impact of menopause in the workplace and steps that can be taken to address this (including flexibility in hours and working practices and uniform policies). As well as policies actively making women’s’ lives in the workplace easier, training for the wider workforce helps create an environment where women can raise issues with colleagues and managers around the menopause, and breaking the ‘taboo’ that has for so long sadly surrounded this topic.
However, changes to the legal framework in Europe have been limited. Calls for the UK Equality Act 2010 to be amended have been largely rebuffed by the government, which does not propose to amend the legislation to include menopause as a protected characteristic, separate from age and sex. There have also been calls by the Women and Equalities Committee (the WEC) to enact a section of the UK Equality Act to allow employees to bring a claim on the basis of a ‘combination’ of protected characteristics. When bringing claims for discrimination, there are challenges relying on the “protected characteristics” of age and sex, and the treatment may not neatly fall within only one of these protected characteristics, therefore the WEC are seeking more flexibility in the law to support individuals in this area.
Regardless of litigation risk, employers are interested in increasing their understanding of the impacts of menopause on employees. In some industries, the impact is more profound, such as financial services where the Menopause in the Workplace: Impact on Women in Financial Services report, recently reported that 1 in 10 of all women working in the UK financial services industry are of menopausal age. The report showed lack of understanding and support around the menopause meaning that 25% of those going through menopause were likely to leave the workforce, while 47% said they were unlikely to seek promotion. More than 1000 UK employers have signed up to the ‘Wellbeing of Women Menopause Workplace Pledge’, some of the commitments of which are recognising that menopause can be an issue in the workplace, and that women need support and actively supporting and informing employees affected by the menopause.
Increasing awareness of menstruation
Spain made headlines this year when it announced its intention to introduce a period of paid menstrual leave of up to five days a month in cases of severe pain (see our article on this development here). There are still changes with the proposed laws in practice, such as requirements for a medical certificate (which may not be practical for very short-term absences, i.e. requiring only a morning or afternoon of absence) though it has opened up discussions in workplaces on benefits and the treatment of menstruation.
The benefit in employers addressing this issue in the workplace is not always clear, particularly if there is not a known trend of employees having healthcare challenges relating to menstruation (the impact of which is very individual). However, there is a growing awareness of the benefits in addressing menstruation as part of a broader DEI strategy, namely:
- At the very least, simple steps like supplying products in workplace bathrooms will improve productivity (and would also be a useful measure to have in bathrooms for individuals or clients visiting office spaces). Note 68% of people who have periods surveyed by menstrual product company Hey Girls in 2022 said they left work immediately if they got their period and did not have the right product at hand.
- Assessing whether workspaces are inclusive. We have seen employers working on period dignity in the workplace campaigns to raise awareness of how menstruation may impact employees and also to assess whether workplaces are inclusive (for example, addressing the issue of portable toilets on construction sites not having appropriate sanitary disposal available). A debate also sparked over whether workplace uniforms are inclusive for those who menstruate following the trend of sportswomen speaking up about menstruation and how this affects them in their work (you can read more about this in our previous article here). Prominent tennis players spoke up about how the dress code for tennis tournaments, did not consider the needs of those who menstruate, and that this was something that caused them considerable anxiety and needed to change. Lionesses’ vice-captain Millie Bright also spoke about how tracking and understanding her menstrual cycle has helped improve her training and how using menstrual tracking apps has helped the team with preventing injuries.
- Being ahead of the curve on social topics, which employees are increasingly discussing in the workplace.
Miscarriage is a common occurrence. The National Health Service in the UK that for individuals who are aware that they are pregnant, one in eight of those pregnancies result in miscarriage and there are similar statistics in other countries. This can be a physically and mentally difficult time for anyone experiencing it and employers are considering how to support employees during this time (particularly in light of various campaigns on rights to leave during this time). Campaigning in New Zealand resulted in a statutory right to take 3 days leave for both the pregnant employee and their partner in the event of a miscarriage at any time during the pregnancy. However, statutory protection for women who have suffered miscarriage is relatively limited in Europe, with France and Germany considering introducing this type of leave, but no legislative change having been made as yet.
In 2020 the UK government introduced parental bereavement leave (two weeks paid at a statutory rate) which is available after a stillbirth after 24 weeks or the death of a child under 18. Employers have the discretion to increase the payment for this leave to full pay or consider whether they wish to expand policies to invite employees who suffer a miscarriage (or whose partners suffer a miscarriage) to speak to HR or their manager about any broader support that may be available (which may not necessarily be leave and could involve another element of flexibility or access to employee assistance programmes).
These topics may impact all employees, regardless of gender, as well as have an effect on business culture and talent retention strategies. Matters that were originally seen as taboo are fast becoming cornerstones of workplace DEI strategies, leaving HR and business leaders to grapple with an everchanging environment and learn about different areas. We’ve compiled several links to useful resources and further reading around the topics covered in this article here.