My story: menopause and taking my employer to tribunal
In September 2023, Karen Farquharson, 49, was awarded just over £37,000 after winning her employment tribunal case. The office manager successfully sued her employer for harassment and unfair dismissal. She had suffered debilitating bleeding, pain, brain fog and emotional anxiety but was told she used the menopause as ‘an excuse for everything’ and ‘to just get on with it’.
At the hearing, her boss Jim Clark dismissed the remarks as ‘innocent’. Upholding Karen Farquharson’s claims of unfair dismissal and harassment, the panel, chaired by Employment Judge JM Hendry, said: ‘Jim Clark can best be described a blunt, self-made man and successful businessman. He no doubt has many admirable qualities but empathy for others is not among them… He expressed no sympathy for the claimant’s health problems.’
Here, Karen shares her story.
Content advisory: this article includes themes of mental health
Seven years ago, when I was 42, I began to experience perimenopausal symptoms – my skin was itching, I was tired and my periods were getting heavier. I started taking antihistamines and tried to sleep as much as I could. But in August 2020, there was a drastic change in my period. I started flooding and bleeding far more regularly – I was bleeding for longer than when I wasn’t bleeding. At first my doctor thought I had an ectopic pregnancy but I knew that wasn’t the case.
So they put me on the mini pill and I tried all sorts, but I was still experiencing bleeding, pain, night sweats, joint pain, pins and needles, brain fog and weight gain. The impact of my symptoms was life changing. I just never thought this kind of thing would happen, and neither did my husband. I brought books and made him read them as well so we could both understand what was going on.
Even though I’d worked for my company for 27 years, I was nervous about telling my employer. But I was upfront with them and explained the situation. They seemed to be fine about it, and I asked if I could work from home if needed – I worked an hour’s drive away and driving with symptoms was uncomfortable. I worked more with the younger director but I knew the older director didn’t like people taking time off work – he called people who needed time off ‘snowflakes’.
In January 2021 I was given HRT – oestrogen patches and progesterone. I continued to experience symptoms but at work they thought I was joking half the time, and I would make a joke out of it sometimes. But one time I was called up as a witness for a court case to do with my work and I told them I couldn’t do it as the stress would kill me – they thought it was hilarious. If I ever got overwhelmed at work, I’d shut myself in the toilet and have a good cry until I’d calm down. And any time I worked from home because I wasn’t feeling well, I had this terrible guilt. I would try and make up for it – I was putting myself under more and more pressure because I didn’t want them to think that I wasn’t capable. I’d work harder or longer to compensate.
I got my HRT upped in September 2022 and they referred me to the gynaecologist [I later learnt I have adenomyosis, which is where endometrial tissue grows in the muscular lining of the womb, causing heavy periods and pelvic pain]. I didn’t feel like I was getting anywhere with my symptoms with my local GP – they still wanted me to have a bleed, but I couldn’t cope with the bleeding anymore, I wanted it to stop – so I got a private consultation, which was a great help.
At work I had this nagging feeling that something just wasn’t sitting right with them, and I felt they thought I was a pain in the backside. But I couldn’t pinpoint it and I didn’t want them to think that I was being paranoid or making a fuss.
Things came to a head one Thursday afternoon in December. I had been working from home on the Tuesday and Wednesday because of heavy snow and I was experiencing heavy bleeding. When it was possible to travel, I came in and my boss Jim Clark said sarcastically, ‘Oh I see you’ve made it in.’ I explained about the snow and my bleeding but he gave me a disgusted look and walked away. I was upset and angry so went to see the other director, Jason Clark. A discussion took place between all three of us where my boss accused me of strolling in whenever it pleased me. He questioned how many days off sick I’d taken that year then said ‘menopause, menopause a’biddy f****** get’s it, just get on wi’ it, that’s your excuse for everything’.
I burst into tears, I couldn’t believe it. I was angry and emotional and told them this was discrimination – they had no understanding of what I was going through. They had previously dismissed the menopause as ‘a’biddy has aches and pains’.
I said I was going to get legal advice and I was asked to calm down. I had to get away from the situation so left. The next day I felt too upset and unwell to return to work and I expected to receive an apology but I heard nothing. I wrote a grievance letter and saw my GP, who signed me off work. My grievance letter was ignored and my remote access to the accounts system was cut off so I couldn’t work from home. I felt I had no choice but to resign.
I used an HR consultant to represent me rather than a solicitor and he was brilliant. He was very supportive and would speak to me at all hours. But I didn’t think that it would get this far, I thought they would settle out of court. Instead, it took six months to get my case to tribunal and I spent a whole week in court being cross examined.
The emotional impact has been huge. It’s the lowest I have ever felt. I didn’t want to be here a couple of months ago… I’d have conversations with my husband about not being here. I can’t see the actual word, but he was just devastated that I didn’t want to carry on. I rang the Samaritans at one point, but I really needed help with the whole process. I gave 27 years to my company, only to be treated like a piece of dirt. It devastated me.
Now that the verdict is in, I feel empowered that I’ve done it. I’ve never stood up for myself before, I’ve always been some sort of a doormat. I didn’t think I was anyone special, but there must have been something inside that kept me going. I am not going to be pushed around anymore, bullied or spoken to like rubbish and just accept it.
I hope that my case will help other people as well. For any woman going through this, I think they need to have a coach or somebody there to help them through it. Employment lawyers are taking on a lot of these cases but the women need to have coaching and support to go through it. I’ve now got a new job and thankfully my stress levels are much lower.