Many women’s issues have received the spotlight over the last few years. Pay inequality, discrimination, sexual harassment at work and period poverty have all received attention.

However, the impacts of menopause symptoms on women in the workplace has been overlooked until recently.

About 70 per cent of women have significant symptoms with menopause and 40 per cent will see a doctor because of their symptoms. The symptoms of menopause are many and varied and different women will experience different symptoms.

They can include, hot flushes, headaches and migraines, disturbed sleep patterns, joint pain, fatigue, short term memory problems, mood swings, anxiety and depression. Symptoms can last between four and eight years.

It should come as no surprise that these symptoms can affect people in the workplace. It has been reported up to a million women in Britain left their jobs because of their menopausal symptoms. Many of these women probably resigned because they were in a workplace which did not sufficiently support them.

The issue begs the question, should there be greater legal protections for women experiencing the symptoms of menopause? What laws exist already to protect women in employment who are affected?

If the symptoms are affecting a women’s performance, the employer must still conduct a fair process to manage performance. A key part of any performance improvement plan is for the employer to consider what reasonable training and support can be given to help improve the employee’s performance.

It may well be that there are measures an employer can take which could minimise or alleviate the symptoms of menopause which are contributing to performance concerns. Employers may consult with the employee’s doctor, with the worker’s consent, to see how they can be supported.

Employees also have a right to request flexible working and this must be considered by the employer.

Unfortunately, exploration of what support might help can only begin where both parties are comfortable discussing the subject.

In my time practising employment law I have observed several occasions where clients have been reluctant to raise that they are being impacted by the symptoms of menopause with their employer. There is certainly a stigma around menopause.

To help overcome this stigma, there needs to be better education, for both employers and employees. We need to discuss the topic more. Some women can suffer the symptoms of menopause without knowing the cause and that there may be treatments.

Where symptoms are particularly severe, should greater leave entitlements be given to women to manage this? This could impose a significant burden on businesses given the potential duration of symptoms. Many businesses may not be able to shoulder this burden.

While it would be unlawful, such an entitlement could lead some unscrupulous businesses to avoid recruiting women if they fell within a certain age bracket.

Should the government pay for the leave then? The idea is not far-fetched in principle. The government already pays employees parental leave for up to 26 weeks.

Employees are entitled to take this leave and there are protections to help ensure people taking parental leave do not lose their employment. ACC also supplements the income of a person who has been incapacitated. New Zealand pays a pension to retirees.

As a society, we have seen that there is merit in protecting the incomes of people in these circumstances. Why are we prepared to pay taxes to support people in the above circumstances but not for women suffering from symptoms of menopause?

The answer, once again, probably rests in the practicalities of implementing such a system – and politics.

Such a policy would involve questions such as how would it be determined whether a woman is incapacitated by symptoms, how would the costs of a policy be covered, how long could women take leave for, and to what extent could businesses absorb the operational burden of having an employee absent?

These are thorny issues but they are not insurmountable. The implementation of pensions, ACC and paid parental leave all would have involved similar considerations. We take for granted these systems now, but they were all once radical concepts.

The conversation is only just starting, but hopefully even a little more awareness will lead to better support for affected women.

Cullen –The Employment Law Firm is now a part of Mahony Horner Lawyers.   David Burton the author of this article is a Principal of Mahony Horner Lawyers.  He can be contacted at david.burton@mhlaw.co.nz