Awareness around parental leave has grown in recent years, but other sensitive issues remain seldom discussed in the workplace. This article explores best practice for employers.
IVF treatment, pregnancy loss and menopause symptoms can all have a disruptive effect on women and their careers, but there are steps employers can take to provide support.
According to research carried out by Benenden Health, 23% of women who have suffered ill health due to the menopause have left their jobs. “That’s frightening – not just from a CSR (corporate social responsibility) perspective, but also in terms of the cost to the employer of brain drain,” says Professor Jo Brewis, co-author of a 2017 government report assessing the effects of the menopause on women’s economic participation.
On average, women experience menopause symptoms for around four years after their last period, but for one in ten, symptoms can last up to 12 years (n.b. it’s also important to note that not everyone who goes through the menopause identifies as a cis woman). Common symptoms include hot flushes and night sweats, difficulty sleeping and concentrating, headaches and joint pain. Despite this, there is no specific legal protection for women struggling at work because they are menopausal. The onus is therefore on employers to provide support and there’s plenty that can be done, says Brewis.
First and foremost, “disclosure should always be a personal choice,” says Brewis. If an individual does choose to disclose that they’re going through the menopause, that information should be kept confidential, unless permission to share is given.
Awareness is key, says Brewis, because the menopause is still poorly understood, and some of the symptoms it causes remain taboo. Employers should offer “something substantive” in terms of information, whether that’s a written policy, guidance, or just signposting towards external resources, she says. “Informal support groups like ‘menopause cafes’ can work well, either online or offline.”
Improved workplace facilities and equipment can make a big difference, Brewis continues. Things as simple as noise-cancelling headphones, decaffeinated drinks, high-soy foods and free sanitaryware are all beneficial, she says. It’s also important to bear in mind the challenges that equipment like PPE might pose for someone experiencing symptoms, she adds.
Perhaps most important, however, are tailored absence policies and flexible working options. “Menopause symptoms come and go, so without a tailored absence policy, a couple of two-day absences might trigger a disciplinary intervention. With a tailored policy in place, those absences can be classed as an ongoing health issue.” Flexible working can also prevent unnecessary absences. “We’ve seen how flexible employers can be over the course of the pandemic, and the ability to work from home on really bad days can make a huge difference.”
Progress is being made on the legislative front too. In 2017, an employment tribunal ruled for the first time that menopausal symptoms can amount to a disability under the Equality Act 2010, and employers must therefore make “reasonable adjustments” to mitigate any disadvantages the sufferer might experience because of them.
Brewis is working with an independent panel of assessors to offer menopause-friendly accreditation for businesses that have put the right support in place. The UK is a “world leader” in this area, she says, but there’s still plenty more work to be done.
Whether or not an employee has a statutory right to paid time off following pregnancy loss depends on whether the pregnancy reached 24 weeks, says Hannah Thomas, a solicitor and employment law specialist at Markel Law.
Pregnancy loss after 24 weeks is known as stillbirth, and in this case, the employee retains their right to maternity leave. They may also be entitled to up to two weeks of parental bereavement leave, along with their partner.
Pregnancy loss before 24 weeks is known as miscarriage, and there is no statutory requirement to offer paid leave, although employees are entitled to take statutory sick pay if they are too unwell to work as a result of the miscarriage.
Some large companies have announced that they will offer paid leave for women going through pregnancy loss (as well as fertility treatment and the menopause). While smaller employers may not have the resources to offer paid leave in these circumstances, there are other things they can do, such as exercising leniency and discretion with absence reporting.
“For the purposes of entitlement to statutory employment rights such as the right to time off for antenatal appointments, a woman undergoing IVF is deemed to be pregnant from the point of implantation of fertilised ova,” says Thomas, not when the eggs are frozen, if that occurs.
Like menopause and pregnancy loss, there is no statutory right to time off work for fertility treatment, despite its potential to be stressful and time-consuming. However, employers should treat medical treatments or days off sick related to IVF the same as any other medical appointment or sick leave. Flexible working can also help employees to plan work and treatment around each other.