The HFEA reports that 1 in 6 couple are affected by fertility issues. This isn’t a negligible figure by any stretch of the imagination. It affects everyone regardless of how much money you have, how popular and beautiful you are, which country you live in or what social circles you move in. It has no boundaries.
I didn’t want to be one of these 1 in 6 statistics; nobody does. But I was; and so was my husband and like the majority of people in our situation we were and still are employed. Since my experience of having fertility treatment, I have spoken to so many people who have very varied experiences of how work handled the situation of them going through treatment. Some were great positive examples, but in the main they were treated quite badly (and this was even if their employer was aware of what they were going through).
For my first cycle of IVF I told nobody in work what I was going through. Not even my closest friends. I chose to sneak around and deal with it on my own and my husband was under strict instructions to do the same.I made that decision; me. I look back now and still wonder what my motivation was for this and I think I was just bloody scared. I consider myself fairly intelligent, but with extensive reading when being told of the procedures and the process I wasn’t prepared mentally or physically for that first round and when it didn’t work I felt the biggest failure in the world. This invariably affected both my confidence and ability at work.
For the second attempt, a few people in work knew, but whispered conversations in rooms occasionally didn’t really count as any comprehensive support and I truly felt I was entirely alone in this journey. At this point my boss still didn’t know. It is only now after the event that I see people around me having the same struggles with IVF and this has been my motivation to make a change. Attempt 2 then failed. My husband, who had continually worked split shifts to support me and to attend appointments and pretty much bent over backwards to ensure his employer wasn’t ‘inconvenienced’ by our infertility decided he too was not going to work for a few weeks. It was his first absence in 12 years.
The majority of people having fertility treatment are employed. This is a fact. Education is the key factor here in changing employers’ mindsets in how to approach and support this growing group of people. This challenge is not going to go away nor is it going to reduce and as time goes by this will be more commonplace so provision must be considered in how to best support. Employers ‘don’t know what they don’t know’. Those myths about infertility need to be eliminated especially where work is concerned which is why there needsto be a clear shift in perception on infertility in the workplace. This is a validreason to support employees. Infertility can often be caused by cancer diagnosis or another illness such as PCOS both of which may well be covered by the equality act yet infertility itself isn’t a protected characteristic even though the W.H.O define it as a disability; ‘ a disease of the reproductive system’.
As an HR professional I have never seen a provision made for fertility treatment and my experience is no exception. Apart from an occasional nod to fertility treatment in the ‘flexible working policy’ where paid time off for treatment is usually ‘discretionary’. This translates to- if you have a good boss you will probably get some support (but ‘undefined’ and ‘unguided’ support) and if you have a bad boss you won’t. There are plenty of articles and support wrapped around about parents returning to work, flexibility, well rounded and carefully written maternity policies outlining your rights and support you will expect to receive from your employer but none really for infertility. Infertility could last well over 20 years which is a significant amount of someone’s working life, yet it is not identified as a work affecting issue or supported with guidance for employers and employees. There needs to be guidance and policies as well as educational training for organisations so they can understand the impact both on their employees and their organisation. Being an ‘employer of choice’ has never been so important so it is vital that organisations recognise the need to have fertility treatment as an emerging trend if they are to attract and retain the best staff.
I have sadly met people who have been dismissed for the time they have taken off for treatment and a whole raft of others who have called in sick with some made up illness for egg collection/ embryo transfer. My advice is to be honest with your employer and work collaboratively with them to identify how you can both work differently to help you attend appointments such as flexible working or moving days off to support. It may be that you ask for a temporary reduction in workload if feasible to support the treatment. It is advisable that you think carefully as to what support you require before this conversation takes place as what works for one person may not necessarily work for another. Make sure you know what Occupational health support is available to you via an E.A.P (Employee assistance programme) or any other route such as counselling as you may need some physical or emotional support along the way. If you feel you are being treated unfairly there will be a complaints/grievance procedure that can be followed but this really is a last resort for both you and the business. Most workplace issues are resolvable, the key is to talk.
If you wish to share your experiences of having fertility treatment whilst working or an an employer who champions this for their employees you can get in touch with me on Instagram: @ivfatwork Twitter: @IVFwork1 or e mail Claire on firstname.lastname@example.org