Breaking The Silence – Dealing With Fertility Struggles Whilst At Work

Breaking The Silence – Dealing With Fertility Struggles Whilst At Work

With the majority of those experiencing fertility struggles being actively employed, how is there so much silence about these issues within the workplace? I’m exploring what can be done to change this, drawing on my experiences from both sides of the fence…

From an employee perspective, I struggled to cope with the all-consuming nature of treatment and the prospect of not fulfilling my lifelong dream to start a family. The endless disappointments and devastating loss hugely affected my mental health and, whilst I desperately tried to maintain focus and still give 100%, it left me feeling like a burden to my employer and that I was struggling to be the person they initially hired. 

From a Human Resources perspective, prior to my own fertility struggles, I had zero understanding of the impact fertility treatment can have on an individual. Of course, I would have shown empathy to the situation, but I most definitely wasn’t aware of the reality – the time-consuming nature of frequent short-notice appointments, the impact of hormones pumped into the body, the invasive procedures involved and the inevitable emotional turmoil. In the 12 years I’d dedicated to HR, I never once had anyone ask about time off entitlements or employer support for fertility treatment. To me, the silence speaks volumes and is no doubt caused by the lack of awareness and apparent ‘taboo’ nature of this subject. With one in six couples experiencing fertility issues (the majority within the working population), how could I have worked in an area with such focus on people whilst never coming across this all too common problem? 

Using both my experiences in HR and facing infertility, I wanted to share how I believe employers could better support those going through treatment. Not only because it’s the right thing to do to be a compassionate employer, but because it would inevitably lead to a more engaged workforce, attracting and retaining top talent as an ‘employer of choice’. By getting it right, it can help to avoid losing good workers and to negate the need (plus huge cost) to replace them. It’s about facilitating and supporting short term adjustments to promote longer term engagement. 

Employees are often reluctant to disclose to their employer about the need for treatment, mainly because they’re unsure whether they’ll be supported and fear discrimination for the admittance that they are actively trying to get pregnant. Having a dedicated policy in place (or an explicit mention of fertility treatment within an existing policy) allows them to firstly know that what they’re going through is valid and recognised. A policy encouraging openness with managers (whilst maintaining confidentiality) could significantly reduce stress levels for those who may otherwise feel the need to hide their struggles, fearing that they are ‘imposing’ by asking for time off for this very valid reason.  

There are three elements I believe are key – awareness, flexibility and support. The starting point for each of these sits within a written policy. I’ve never been a fan of a policy for ‘policy’s sake’ – we can sometimes become too prescriptive and limit a manager’s freedom to ‘manage’, but with so many misconceptions and implications that infertility can cause, we cannot simply leave it down to the hope that each manager would make a compassionate judgment on what is considered fair and reasonable. We also need employees to know that it’s OK to disclose this information and not suffer in silence.

From my experience across a number of organisations and many HR contacts, I’ve discovered a range of approaches. 

  • Those with no policy or mention whatsoever.
  • Those with a mention of fertility treatment within another policy, but classing it as an ‘elective procedure’ – ignoring the fact that infertility is classed as an illness (by World Health Organisation) and fuelling the notion that IVF bears resemblance to a cosmetic procedure, for example. 
  • Those who mention discretionary entitlement within another policy. This tends to be within absence or flexible working policies but I’ve also heard of it being within a maternity policy (ironically a cruel reminder of what we desperately want).
  • Those who have a dedicated fertility policy.

In fact, in my (not so scientific) recent Instagram poll only 17% said that they believed their employer had a fertility policy.

So, from my experience, what would I suggest goes into an ‘ideal’ policy? 

  • Firstly, recognition that fertility treatment is not a choice – it isn’t an elective procedure but something many have to go through either due to illness or social reasons – all outside of our control. 
  • A summary of what might be typically involved in IVF treatment as a way to raise awareness with managers about the reality of what to expect e.g. numerous scan appointments and their ad-hoc nature and the need for invasive medical procedures requiring recovery time. 
  • Guidance as to what might be covered as paid / unpaid leave and how it would be recorded, with reassurance that this type of absence (with proof if required) wouldn’t count towards attendance ‘trigger points’. Employees are only ‘protected’ by maternity legislation once they have had an embryo transferred, and so often employees can feel particularly vulnerable throughout fertility treatment.  Workplaces will need to consider what is reasonable, but by giving employees an idea of what might be provided they can go a long way in removing the stress of the unknown.  
  • Allowances for flexible working, enabling the employee to still perform their role working around their treatment. For example, temporary adjustments such as working from home, lighter duties, adjustment to start / finish times to accommodate appointments – all around treatment cycles. 
  • The rights and potential flexibility for partners to attend appointments.
  • Any reasonable adjustments that might be considered for a role if it is physically demanding during treatment and post embryo transfer.
  • Recognition of the link to mental health – with suggestions of emotional support to consider such as Occupational Health and access to counselling services through Employee Assistance Programmes.
  • Recognising miscarriage as an experience that qualifies for compassionate leave and emotional support – another taboo subject that can leave employees unsure of their entitlements in a hugely sensitive situation.

The absolute ideal would be the introduction of initiatives to support the written policy, raising awareness and starting some conversations within the workplace. The only way we can make positive change is to open up the dialogue, encouraging education and understanding. 

I’d love to hear your experiences and thoughts – through the power of sharing we can help others feel less alone and encourage positive change!

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