Having celebrated International Women's Day this month, we take a particular look at the additional health-related challenges women and those with female reproductive systems may experience during their working life and pose considerations for employers on how they may best protect their employees' health and safety in these circumstances.
Employers have a general duty of care to protect the health and safety of all employees when they are at work. Health and safety is more than hard hats and ergonomic chairs. Most employers recognise that their duty goes much further and includes being mindful of stress and other mental health conditions at work. Having celebrated International Women's Day this month, we take a particular look at the additional health-related challenges women and those with female reproductive systems may experience during their working life and pose considerations for employers on how they may best protect their employees' health and safety in these circumstances.
Pregnancy and maternity
Once an employee discloses that they are pregnant, their employer must ensure that the individual is working in an environment and role which is safe for both them and their baby. If any part of their role would put them or their baby at risk, for example lifting heavy items, exposure to chemicals, or standing for long periods of time, then the employer has an obligation to take steps to remove those risks. Where that is not possible, they may need to find a temporary alternative role for them or, in some cases, place them on paid medical suspension.
Employees are also protected against discrimination due to being pregnant, on maternity leave or seeking to exercise their right to take maternity leave. It is hopefully rare nowadays that an employee may be reluctant to tell their employer about their pregnancy for fear of dismissal, but too often it is still a live concern for candidates applying for a new role or internal promotion. It is unlawful for employers (and potential employers) to dismiss an employee due to pregnancy or to treat them unfavourably due to their pregnancy. This would include discounting a candidate for a new role due to pregnancy, or failing to notify or consider them for opportunities for promotion while pregnant or on maternity leave.
Although an employer cannot be found to have discriminated on grounds of pregnancy unless they know or ought to have known about the pregnancy, it is still good practice for employers to be mindful of potential pregnancies within their workforce, for example by ensuring alcohol-free options are available at work social events and considering varying team and client events to include activities other than a trip to the pub. This would be best practice for other reasons too, for example to minimise the risk of other types of discrimination, such as on grounds of religion or belief, and to maximise general inclusion in the workplace.
The menopause can trigger a number of physical, psychological and emotional changes, but it is only in relatively recent years that the menopause and its effects have been considered in a workplace context. In September 2022, a survey of 6,000 people conducted by Randstad UK found that 73% of workers do not believe that employers sufficiently support women in the workplace during menopause. Employers should be alert to the impact of the menopause and carry out risk assessments to ensure that the workplace is as safe and supportive as possible for affected employees.
There have been calls for menopause to be included as a new protected characteristic under the Equality Act, as the law does not currently protect those going through the menopause specifically, although sex discrimination claims may be possible. The Government has stated that there isn't satisfactory evidence to support new legislation at the moment. Nevertheless, it is recommended that employers take steps to support employees. These steps could include:
- Implementing a menopause policy which details the support that employees can expect and signpost them to appropriate internal and external sources of advice and support;
- Educating managers and colleagues on menopause and its effects to encourage a culture of openness and understanding; and
- Appointing a menopause champion or committee to consider menopause-related issues in the workplace and keep existing support measures under regular review.
Having a supportive structure in place should help encourage employees to be open about their experiences with menopause and enable employers to assist where possible.
Pregnancy loss can be an incredibly physically and emotionally difficult experience. Sadly, 1 in 5 employees report that they received no support whatsoever from their employer when they suffered a pregnancy loss.
Where a baby is lost after 24 weeks of pregnancy, the usual entitlements to statutory maternity leave and pay continue to apply. Parents in these circumstances may also be entitled to statutory parental bereavement leave and pay, which was introduced in 2020. However, at the moment, there is no legislation in place requiring employers to give employees paid leave to assist with their recovery from pregnancy loss where this occurs before 24 weeks.
There have been calls for this to change. MP Angela Crawley's Private Member's Bill aims to provide three days of statutory paid leave to those who have experienced a miscarriage before 24 weeks of pregnancy. The objective of the Bill is to provide further support to those that have experienced pregnancy loss, where there is no current statutory provision. The Bill passed its first Westminster reading but has not progressed further.
In the absence of any legal requirement, many employers are nevertheless adopting new policies (or adapting existing bereavement policies) to offer paid time off for bereaved employees to support them through this distressing time. Pregnancy loss is often described as one of the remaining taboo subjects, in the workplace and society in general. Employers are encouraged to ensure that their employees feel supported and able to speak to a line manager or dedicated contact if they are impacted by pregnancy loss, either themselves or as a partner. Recognising this sadly common experience through appropriate company policies and support measures would be a significant step in the right direction.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.