Why the menopause is having its DAY IN COURT

Why the menopause is having its DAY IN COURT

Why the menopause is having its DAY IN COURT: They’ve been bullied for hot flushes, sidelined by exhaustion or felt compelled to leave their jobs due to brain fog. After years of suffering workplace discrimination in silence, more and more women are taking a stand

  • Ellen Harding, 51, who lives in Yorkshire, was hit by menopause in her late 40s
  • Claims after a week in her new job she began being bullied and lost confidence
  • Has been an increase in tribunals mentioning menopause for unfair dismissal 
  • Deborah Garlick, 56, set up Menopause in the Workplace to raise awareness

On the first day of Ellen Harding’s new job as office manager at a swanky Manchester stockbrokers, she was welcomed with open arms. On paper, Ellen would be an asset anywhere. A former Royal Navy officer, who had launched and run her own successful designer handbag company, she even had a master’s degree in staff administration.

Yet the bullying began, she claims, after just a week in the job. Her colleagues joked about the fan she put on her desk to keep herself cool. The young female boss ticked her off publicly for wearing trousers, instead of a dress.

Worst of all, she found a cruel post-it note — which she took a picture of, and still has — stuck on the counter in the office kitchen saying she had a ‘sweaty face’. The note named her and, Ellen believes, had been deliberately put there by her boss.

The insult cut deep. In her late 40s, Ellen had hit the menopause early and was suffering from constant hot flushes, a swollen stomach, and other debilitating symptoms that hit women when hormone levels fall at the end of their fertile years.

An increasing number of women are sharing their experiences of sex discrimination and unfair dismissal in the workplace – including Ellen Harding (pictured), who hit the menopause in her late 40s and was bullied for six months in her job

‘One of the cruellest things was when the female boss told me that my face was always red from the flushes and she didn’t want me to be seen in that state by important clients who came into the office,’ she says. ‘When I wore trousers to hide my bloated stomach and other awkward menopausal issues, I was in trouble, too.’

Now 51, divorcee Ellen, a mother of two teenagers, is the successful editor of an online magazine, specialising in women’s health and wellbeing, and works from her home in the Yorkshire countryside. But she will never forget the humiliation she suffered in that job in Manchester.

‘I put up with the bullying for six months. At the time, I found it hard to fight back. I was always tired and completely lost confidence in myself because of the menopause.’

Ellen is not the only menopausal woman who has faced workplace hostility. Growing numbers are taking their employers to court claiming that they’ve lost their jobs as a result of the menopause.

Last year, there was a record 16 employment tribunals where women mentioned the menopause as a reason for their unfair dismissal or sex discrimination, up from just six in 2019. The first six months of 2021 saw ten such cases — and the number is expected to go on rising.

Employment lawyers say women are increasingly feeling empowered to challenge employers who ignore or fail to understand the devastating impact of the condition on their female workforce.

Women aged 50 to 64 are today the fastest growing economically-active group in Britain (later state pension ages and longer life expectancy means we’re all having to work longer), yet recent research found we could be losing 14 million work days a year as a consequence of menopause problems.

For a significant number, it goes further even than missed days. A shocking one in four women who experience symptoms consider leaving their job altogether — and many do go on to quit — resulting in a huge loss of knowledge, experience and talent.

Deborah Garlick, 56 (pictured) gave up her high-powered job at Boots 11 years ago when menopausal symptoms left her struggling to cope

Take the alarming case of 56-year-old Sarah Janner, a married mother of one from Lincolnshire who was fired from her job after 19 years and fought back at an employment tribunal last September.

She was sacked for gross misconduct by a housing association where she was a welfare officer. The reason? Her bosses accused her of getting behind in her work, filing reports late, not turning up on time, and going to unauthorised medical appointments.

When Sarah challenged her dismissal at a tribunal, she stood in front of a male, middle-aged judge, and told him her menopause symptoms had suddenly made it hard to stay on top of things. ‘I laid it on the line to him,’ she says today. ‘I said I had been suffering from constant hot flushes, fatigue, brain fog, heavy periods lasting for days, heart palpitations and exhaustion.

‘I had lost over two stone in weight and, at just over eight stone, my clothes were falling off me. I had a lack of confidence because I didn’t know what my menopausal body was going to throw at me next.

‘I was going home after work and was putting myself to bed at 7.30 in the evening fully clothed because I was so exhausted. It was half an hour before the bedtime of my ten-year-old daughter who would have to be looked after by my husband.’

To Sarah’s dismay, the judge took little notice. He took less than a day to throw her case out. She says he treated her as though she had had a ‘touch of the vapours’ or was an over-hysterical woman ‘making it up’.

Solicitor Adam Pavey said it is not uncommon for women to leave employment at mid-life, or to be wrongly dismissed because of ‘poor performance’ (file image)

She adds: ‘I think he thought it was sour grapes on my part because I had been sacked. He kept asking, in a mystified way, why I felt I had been let down at work when I was an intelligent person. He seemed to think if I couldn’t do my job properly, I deserved to lose it.’

Sarah — whose name we have changed — was suddenly without a career and has not worked since. She is embarrassed to tell some family and friends that it was the menopause which cost her the job she loved.

‘I just say, I gave it up because I’d had enough,’ she explains now.

Sarah had been to the doctor about her symptoms, but the GP said: ‘It is just part of being a woman, things begin to slow down when you get older.’ She told him that with years of her active life ahead, she didn’t want to slow down. HRT was not discussed.

‘Lots of women are going through the same as me,’ she adds today. ‘They could be your wife, sister, mother or daughter.’

Her solicitor Adam Pavey, a leading employment lawyer at Pannone Solicitors, agrees: ‘There are lots of Sarahs out there who hit the menopause and then unwillingly lose, or choose to leave their jobs. It is not uncommon for women to leave employment at mid-life, or to be wrongly dismissed because of ‘poor performance’.

‘The organisation Sarah worked for didn’t understand the menopause. I don’t think this is an exclusive issue of male bosses not realising the impact of the menopause; many younger female bosses don’t either.’

Caroline Nokes MP claims excluding menopausal women from the workplace is detrimental to our economy (file image)

While pregnancy is a protected characteristic by itself under UK equality law, the menopause is not. Adam thinks this is wrong: although it doesn’t affect all women in such a way as to impact on their ability to work, when so many women do suffer such wide-ranging effects, the menopause should surely come under sex discrimination law.

MPs are looking into it. Last month a parliamentary inquiry was launched into the workplace treatment of menopausal women, to examine if current sex equality laws go far enough.

Indeed, the House of Commons’ Women and Equalities Committee says one million UK women, many in their late 40s and early 50s and at the peak of their careers, have left their jobs because of the menopause.

‘Three in five women are negatively affected at work as a result of this,’ says committee chair Caroline Nokes MP. ‘Excluding menopausal women from the workplace is detrimental to our economy, our society, and our place on the world stage.

‘Despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of UK women are currently going through this process, which can be both physically and mentally draining, it is ignored in law.

‘This huge issue has been left near-invisible for far too long.’

Deborah (pictured) has collaborated with Government ministers to set up an accreditation programme to help employers with training and education about menopause

Several high-profile women have begun to speak out, however. TV presenter and menopause campaigner Davina McCall credits HRT for saving her career.

‘I definitely would not have been able to continue working had I not gone on HRT,’ she’s said. ‘Women are on the verge of losing their jobs or leaving their jobs because they can’t cope with it. I would love to encourage any big business to have a menopause nurse on hand because that’s what women seem absolutely desperate for.’

Some businesses are already acting. Last month it was announced that HSBC, First Direct and M&S Bank had signed up to a new ‘Menopause Friendly Accreditation’ which recognises companies willing to build awareness around the menopause.

The programme is the brain child of Deborah Garlick, 56, who gave up her high-powered job at Boots 11 years ago when menopausal symptoms left her struggling to cope.

‘I loved my job, but every day was a battle and I had no idea what was happening to me. Menopause was such a taboo subject back then, I felt I had to leave before I damaged my reputation.’

She set up an online community for midlife women called Henpicked, and collaborated with Government ministers to set up an accreditation programme to help employers with training and education about menopause.

Lawyer Adam Pavey says far fewer grievance cases would come to court if employers were more sympathetic about the menopause (file image)

‘It is all about encouraging an environment where employees can talk openly about menopause, without fear of being stigmatised. The aim is to make menopause a normal subject — just like pregnancy — which you can openly discuss with your manager or HR department.’

Deborah’s team set up Menopause In The Workplace and they have now worked with 2,000 businesses, many of which have established ‘menopause champions’ to raise awareness.

Clearly, if someone isn’t doing their job properly, employers can’t turn a blind eye. But Deborah’s work shows how a sympathetic ear and understanding the impact menopause can have at work, can go a long way to solving problems.

Lawyer Adam Pavey says far fewer grievance cases would come to court if employers were more sympathetic about the menopause, and had the knowledge and resources to step in before things spiralled out of control.

Sarah agrees that for her, a supportive line of communication could have saved her job. ‘I’d had an unblemished service record for more than 18 years, yet when I asked for help I was treated so badly it only exacerbated my stress levels. I wasn’t expecting any special treatment, or special allowances — just a little bit of understanding and support,’ she says.

There is hope the lifting of taboos and a growing understanding of the complex nature of menopause symptoms will encourage more employers to seek training and guidance.

Business analyst Tracy Wills, 53, said people assumed she was drunk when she had brain fog’ during a conference (file image) 

It’s a sea change that business analyst Tracy Wills, 53, wholeheartedly welcomes. She said of her horrifying experience of being in a conference with eight senior colleagues when menopausal ‘brain fog’ set in. She was meant to be introducing everybody. ‘I got to one man I worked with every day and couldn’t remember his name. Then I forgot the names of two others.’

Add to this her sudden misplacing of passwords and clumsiness. ‘People kept asking if I was drunk,’ she adds. But when she tried to explain it all to her line manager, he looked at her as if she was ‘an alien’.

‘My confidence was so low. I was exhausted. I didn’t have the energy to keep my “game face” on.’

Quitting her job at 49, she took a year-long ‘menopause break’ before looking for a new company, eventually discovering a pioneering finance company, which had a menopause policy in line with the Menopause In The Workplace directives.

‘I was very open about the fact my career break had been due to menopause symptoms and the woman who hired me said I was being offered the job on the strength of those experiences,’ she said.

Precisely the sort of enlightened attitude, say a growing band of menopause-at-work campaigners, from which many other companies could learn.

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