By Katie Ash, head of employment law at Banner Jones
Women make up a significant portion of the workforce, so it is hardly surprising that gender equality in the workplace has become an important topic in recent decades.
Indeed, sex is one the many characteristics protected under the Equality Act 2010, which helps to ensure that no one faces discrimination or is treated differently because of their gender.
Maternity leave – which protects the employment rights of women while they are taking time off to care for a new baby – was introduced in the UK in 1975, as part of the Employment Protection Act, and was further extended in 1993 to include all working women
Furthermore, as of 2017 any business with 250 or more employees also must publish its gender pay gap – the difference in average earnings between women and men – with a view to further driving equality.
These legislative changes demonstrate that much has changed over the years, but it is widely accepted that there is still more that needs to be done to level the playing field between male and female employees.
Most recently the subject of menopause, the impact that associated symptoms, and what employers should do to support their workers, has become a key area of focus.
Here Katie Ash, head of employment law at Banner Jones, which has signed the Wellbeing Of Women’s Menopause Workplace Pledge, talks about what employers need to know if they have a member of staff who is experiencing menopause symptoms that are affecting their work.
According to the charity Wellbeing of Women, women make up nearly half of the UK workforce, but around 900,000 have quit their job because of the menopause. That’s a truly eye-opening statistic, and so it is hardly surprising that we have seen an increase in enquiries on this matter of late.
After all, it is a natural stage of life that is going to affect around 50% of us at some point, including women, trans people and intersex people.
While the symptoms of menopause do vary from person to person, for many it can be a difficult and stressful time, with some people experiencing both physical as well as emotional changes that can have a significant impact on their ability to continue working as normal.
It is therefore really important that employers are aware of the issues that affect people experiencing the menopause matter and that it is dealt with in a sensitive way – not only because that is the right thing to do, but also in line with the Equality Act 2010 which protects workers against discrimination.
While menopause itself is not a protected characteristic, sex is, and so any employee or worker who is treated less favourably as a result of any associated symptoms could bring a claim against their employer if they feel they have been treated less favourably as a result.
That means menopause symptoms should not factor into any decision made relating to, for example, promotions or redundancies.
Equally, as with any ongoing mental or physical illness, employers should look at any reasonable adjustments that can be made – either to the working pattern, location or role related tasks – to remove any disadvantage that the employee might experience because of it.
For example, something as simple as a more relaxed dress code, more flexible work times or more regular breaks, or even simply moving a workspace so that it is closer to better ventilation, might make a real difference.
One of the most effective ways to both prepare for any such situation, or to manage the matter once it arises, is to keep the lines of communication open. Providing training to managers to ensure they are equipped to offer support will also provide reassurance and ensure that any conversation is dealt with appropriately.
If an employee feels that they have the support of the team around them, they are far more likely to open up about the challenges they are experiencing and, as a result, to discuss potential ways to manage or mitigate those issues – including mental health conditions linked to increased stress, such as anxiety or depression.
Of course, the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 also plays an important role here, as it states that an employer must do what it can to ensure the health, safety and welfare of everyone at work. A failure to comply can have very serious consequences for businesses, including fines.
If someone is struggling as a result of their symptoms, and that is compromising their safety or wellbeing, or the safety of others, an employer needs to take steps to address it.
Again, an open dialogue with employees which allows them to raise concerns about their physical or mental health will help, especially if you can demonstrate that procedures are in place to help them continue to do their job.
Employment law is constantly changing and dealing with HR and employment law issues can be one of the most difficult factors in running a business or organisation.