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
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!
Dealing with fertility struggles whilst trying to maintain a career is one of the biggest challenges I have ever faced. As a HR professional, I can honestly say that I would have struggled to truly comprehend the effect that facing infertility could have on an individual’s time and emotions before going through it myself. I know I wouldn’t have been alone in this lack of understanding. Until it happened to me, I never considered how it could totally change my perspective and alter my state of mind, so much so that it had a direct impact on my motivation at work.
Infertility is an illness, it’s not visible and often kept secret but it can be life-altering for an individual. It can cast life’s hopes and dreams into doubt and I even questioned my whole purpose in life if I couldn’t be a Mum. Trying to process something as huge as this can be incredibly difficult and impactful in other aspects of life – particularly at work.
Not only is there the enormity of the emotions involved, there is also a real stigma surrounding infertility – it’s something people don’t talk about, a vicious cycle, as the reasons that people don’t talk about it only fuels the silence. We don’t tell anyone as we fear we are the only ones going through it, we fear others won’t understand our feelings. In the workplace we fear that we may be discriminated against for openly admitting we want to have children, which consequently results in time away from the workplace.
What’s needed is to break the silence, encourage understanding and to put some practical steps in place to provide much needed support – something that the Fertility Network UK are hoping to do with the launch of their ‘Fertility in the Workplace’ initiative.
To support this initiative, I wanted to highlight the impact fertility struggles can have on an individual the workplace by sharing my own story. There can be a real lack of understanding amongst those who haven’t faced the prospect of not being able to have a family and by sharing I hope to show just how impactful it can be. Through my Defining Mum blog others have shared their stories with me – with some on extended sick leave whilst going through treatment, some like me have reduced their hours to cope with the strain, and some have even gone to the extent of quitting their jobs. This is not just a minor illness people find easy to accept and live with, it can be potentially life-changing and lead to a whole host of complex emotions.
April 2014 – I gave my all in an assessment day for the next ‘step up’ in my career to a development role. I wanted a career in HR, one that would eventually take me to a senior level and I hoped this was a company that I could progress and develop within. They were looking for a future successor, someone with potential that could become an HR leader. I was beyond excited when I was offered the job, I accepted right away and started counting down the 3 months until I would start.
May 2014 – Just a few weeks later I was diagnosed with Premature Ovarian Failure, told our chances of conceiving with my eggs were small and that if I wanted to have a genetic child we would need to start IVF straight away, before my ovarian reserve ran out and I went through the menopause.
Suddenly, in that moment, my whole perspective changed. Previously, I thought that I could have both a successful career and a family, no problem. Before hearing this news, I would have happily waited on starting a family whilst I began to grow my career with my new organisation. I thought that when the time felt right, we’d try, fall pregnant, I’d go on maternity leave and then go back to work. This all changed when suddenly I faced the prospect of not being able to have what I thought was half of my ideal life – the family. Now I realised it actually wasn’t an equal split; the family was ALL I now wanted and all I could think about. Yes, I wanted to feel fulfilled and successful in my career, but more than anything I couldn’t imagine my life without being a Mum.
I knew I needed to tell my new employer, particularly as my treatment was due to commence the same week I started the job. I had an overwhelming and probably illogical feeling that in telling them I was about to go through IVF, I had been somehow been dishonest in my interview. Yes, I hadn’t said openly that I wanted more than anything to be a Mum but at the time I didn’t think getting pregnant would be a problem for me. Let’s face it, who would feel comfortable saying this in an interview without fear of being discriminated against?! In the position I now found myself in, I felt that by telling them in my interview that I wanted progression and a career I had misled them in some way, almost giving an impression that family wasn’t on the cards in the near future. I know it’s not how you should feel but this is exactly how I did feel.
I started the job, eager to impress and hoped that I could do it all alongside my first IVF cycle. I was thankful to have been given the flexibility to attend appointments but I constantly felt guilty as I tried to sneak into the office unnoticed after a rushed 1hr20 commute post appointment from the clinic. Meetings had to fit around the many appointments whilst I tried to build networks and make good first impressions. Rather than it being exciting, motivating and energising – it drained me, work became unimportant and trivial. My usual love of building connections and relationships had disappeared as all I wanted to do was retreat and be on my own, consumed by my situation (not even considering what the hormones being pumped through my body were doing to me.)
I sensed my manager was eager for me to spend more time with my client group, to be more visible and proactive – usually not a problem for me but all my energy was taken up by my fertility struggle. I’d lost myself and felt I was constantly letting them down, unable to be the confident person they hired when I was blissfully unaware of my situation. Everywhere I looked I was met with guilt. Guilt for not being ever present due to the many appointments. Guilt due to not being fully present mentally. Guilt as I knew that if this cycle didn’t work then I would feel even worse. Guilt because if this cycle did work then I would not be present due to maternity leave. Obviously, the latter was the guilt I would have been most comfortable with, but still, it was one of the overwhelming complex emotions I experienced during this time.
Six weeks into my new job I found out that, against the odds, I was pregnant. With what I thought was the hard part over I began to relax, before being cruelly knocked for six when I suffered a missed miscarriage. After having been in and out of work for IVF I was now facing time off for my pregnancy loss. I vividly remember suddenly having to leave in floods of tears when I began to bleed and I was just too emotional to go back into the office. Overall my miscarriage was drawn out over a long 3 weeks, finally resulting in needing to have the pregnancy surgically removed. I was thankful for the flexibility I had been afforded so far but I began to sense the goodwill was wearing thin. Soon after my surgery I was asked when I would be back in the office and reminded of the amount of time I hadn’t been around, even though mentally I was nowhere near ready I felt unable to take any more time off.
With my confidence now at an all-time low, I embarked on back-to-back IVF cycles and constantly felt the need to explain my absences, particularly as important first impressions were being affected. My manager was desperately trying to motivate me by challenging me, trying to get back the fire that she saw on my assessment day, but that only pushed me further away and for the first time in my life I felt I just couldn’t perform my job. I felt like a failure.
Something needed to give and so I went to see my GP who signed me off for 2 weeks with stress and anxiety. Having never had a day off for anything other than minor illnesses, these feelings consumed me. I was no longer the person that skipped into the assessment day smiling and full of confidence, my infertility had changed me and left me a shadow of my former self.
I even considered leaving as I wasn’t able to do both – put everything into my fertility treatments and be the person my manager wanted me to be. I wanted to take a sabbatical but due to my short length of service this wasn’t an option. I was offered and nearly took a career break which would effectively have meant resigning – I was so close to doing so but for some reason I just couldn’t, particularly as financially I needed to work now more than ever to privately fund our treatment. Eventually, I found some comfort in seeing a Counsellor, accessed through my workplace Employee Assistance Programme, which helped me with managing my emotions whilst remaining at work. I realised that what I desperately needed was balance, to allow me to feel like I was giving my eggs the very best chance…to ultimately have no regrets. I finally made the decision to reduce to a 4-day week, and eventually took a sideways move to a role that wasn’t in the development pipeline – to allow someone else to take that succession step. I couldn’t help but feel like I had let others down and failed in some way, it was hard to let the opportunity go but I just knew I wasn’t in the right place mentally. My priorities had totally changed.
In the space of just a few months, just when I thought I was taking a leap forwards into a job that would progress my career, my infertility made me feel like I had taken 10 steps backwards. Feeling very much alone, I believed that by letting infertility stop me from progressing in my career I had failed. I now see I had to accept that I wasn’t able to do it all, my focus needed to be becoming a Mum so that I had no regrets. On reflection, although it stopped me progressing in the way I had planned, it changed me as a person for the better and made me more confident with what I ultimately wanted from life.
After 5 unsuccessful IVF cycles, I’m now a stay-at-home Mum to three girls under the age of three, all thanks to IVF and Egg Donation. Going through fertility struggles has made me realise just how precious life is and what is important to me for a fulfilled life. I am now taking an extended career break to raise the girls – after everything I went through to get them, I just don’t want to miss a thing. I started to write my blog just a few months ago and in doing so have found a new purpose. Aside from being the best Mum I can be, my aspiration is now to help others who are experiencing fertility struggles, to change perceptions, encourage understanding and, most of all, to give hope.
When it comes to dealing with Fertility in the Workplace, not everyone will react in the way that I did, some will find work a helpful distraction but often work is another stressor that can become just too much. It doesn’t help that currently there is a huge disparity and inconsistency around how people are treated, some are given complete flexibility whilst others are given none. Many have no idea where to find information on entitlement and lack confidence to ask questions and seek help where there is such perceived stigma. Being a HR Professional myself, I have seen how managers can also lack the understanding and capability to best support team members. This is why I’m delighted to hear that FNUK are launching policy guidance and support for the workplace. Supporting an employee through something as personally challenging as infertility can only lead to greater engagement, productivity and loyalty, whilst helping to attract talent – why wouldn’t your organisation want to embrace this and become a ‘Fertility Friendly Employer’? Head over to the Fertility Network UK to find out more.