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Discrimination | Can menopause be classed as a disability?

Written by Laura Cheng on 1 November 2021

Hormone surges caused by menopause can have a significant effect on women’s physical and mental health. From insomnia and hot flushes to anxiety and depression, all aspects of life can be impacted, and that of course includes work.

With the conversation having opened back up during World Menopause Month, it falls to employers to understand the challenges that menopausal employees may experience and, importantly, whether these employees can be protected from disability discrimination.

Can menopause be classed as a disability?

The Equality Act (EqA) 2010 sets out when someone is considered to be disabled and protected from discrimination. In short, the EqA says an employee is disabled if:

  1. They have a physical or mental impairment; and
  2. That impairment has a substantial and long-term adverse effecton their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.

However, it’s not always clear to employers whether a worker’s condition falls under the above definition, and this leaves the door open to legal issues. Can menopause, for example, be classed as a disability based on these criteria?

That was the question to be answered in the case of Rooney v Leicester Council. Ultimately, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) established that employees experiencing significant menopausal symptoms could be considered disabled. The EAT held that the Employment Tribunal had erred in its original decision to strike out the employee’s claims.

The Claimant, Ms Rooney, was employed by Leicester Council as a childcare social worker until she resigned in October 2018. Along with other claims, Ms Rooney raised claims for disability and sex discrimination, harassment and victimisation in relation to the Council’s handling of her menopausal symptoms.

For a period of two years, Ms Rooney suffered from physical, mental and psychological symptoms which affected her everyday life. These included insomnia, light-headedness, stress, depression, anxiety, confusion, palpitations, memory loss, migraines and hot flushes.

The Employment Tribunal found that Ms Rooney was not suffering from a disability and her claims were dismissed. On appeal, however, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) held that Ms Rooney was in fact disabled, and that the Employment Tribunal had not sufficiently examined her symptoms. 

The EAT found that her symptoms were more than minor or trivial as they affected her day-to-day activities, including forgetting to use her handbrake in her car and often forgetting to attend appointments.

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3 in 5 menopausal women were negatively affected at work by their symptoms, and nearly 900,000 have left their jobs as a result.

CIPD and Bupa survey, 2019

Going forward

With increased cases relating to menopause, employers should not overlook the condition and recognise the difficulties that menopausal employees navigate.

What’s more, this case also highlights that menopause is capable of being classed as a disability where an employee’s symptoms are significant, so employers should be mindful of this fact to avoid similar scenarios. If an employee or worker is put at a disadvantage or treated less favourably because of their menopause symptoms, this will provide grounds for a claim.

The government recently launched an Inquiry into Menopause and the Workplace and its findings will set out potential recommendations. The Institution of Occupational Safety and Health has also weighed in on the issue, urging employers to develop more inclusive and supportive workplace cultures and managerial styles to help menopausal women feel comfortable discussing their symptoms and requesting support.

This call to action comes after a survey found that three in five menopausal women were negatively affected at work by their symptoms. Alarmingly, nearly 900,000 women in the UK have left their jobs as a result. With these figures in mind, IOSH says “a concerted effort is required to support women to ensure they not only remain in their jobs but are able to flourish”.

In the meantime, while we wait for further guidance, employers should continue to make reasonable adjustments (such as providing temperature control for the work area, allowing short breaks in long meetings, and considering flexible working arrangements) to support employees as best they can.

Get expert guidance

Whether you need advice on risk assessment and reasonable adjustments, or help to ensure your policies and procedures cater for the needs of menopause-related issues, our Employment Law, HR and Health & Safety specialists can help you to fulfil your duties and avoid discrimination.

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