I never realised how much going through a fertility struggle could impact you at work, until I went through it myself. Working as a HR professional for over 12 years, I’d had many requests for maternity and parental leaves, but I never had anyone come to me asking for entitlements or support while they went through fertility treatment. If someone had asked, I probably would have simply pointed them towards ‘manager’s discretion’, not recognising a need for clearer policy or the emotional impact, particularly in relation to work.
I’ve since found that the silence on this topic during my time in HR certainly wasn’t because I was the only person to experience it. The silence stems from the stigma and taboo surrounding the topic, the lack of recognition within organisations, and the many fears that individuals facing this can have.
Being a mum was the one role in life I was certain I would achieve. My career was very important to me, but I simply assumed that building our family would fit around this when the time felt right. As I turned 28, I had the shock realisation that this was far from guaranteed, after a diagnosis of Premature Ovarian Insufficiency (early menopause) and the prospect of never becoming a mum gave a newfound sense of urgency and perspective. I subsequently endured five unsuccessful cycles of IVF in close succession, including a devastating miscarriage. Eventually we had to consider a whole new path to parenthood using egg donation, one that finally enabled me to become a mum of three.
Working throughout this time was far from easy. Being an open person and not wanting to carry the additional burden of keeping my treatment a secret, I decided to tell my manager, something I know many don’t feel comfortable enough to do. Being able to be flexible in managing my own diary, something not everybody is lucky enough to be able to do, took away some of the stress of trying to juggle my workload with the time-off required for the many appointments.
Even so, the impact to my mental health was significant. Balancing the demands, pressures and emotions relating to fertility treatment almost felt like another full-time job. I went from being outgoing and confident in building relationships to feeling emotionally exhausted, plastering a smile on my face, and wondering how I was going to get through each day, especially if another maternity leave collection card landed on my desk.
On the surface it appeared that everything was OK, but I was silently grieving. The strain became so much that I was signed off work with stress and anxiety for the first time in my career, I considered taking a career break, and eventually I agreed a sideways move out of the succession pipeline into a less demanding role, four days a week. I felt like I was failing at everything, both as a woman who couldn’t have a baby, and in my career too.
Fast-forward six years and I now work as a fertility patient advocate, combining both my professional HR experience with my personal one, to transform how fertility in the workplace is viewed and supported. Fertility Matters at Work is a new Community Interest Company launched alongside my two co-founders, Claire Ingle and Natalie Silverman, and we have a big vision for change. Through our Instagram community and 2020 survey we’ve spoken with hundreds of people facing these struggles, highlighting the many common difficulties they are facing.
Even though it may feel like a ‘niche’ topic, we know this is a common problem affecting as many as 1 in 7 individuals, all of whom are working age. It’s likely that employers don’t even know the true extent of the problem due to many workers not feeling comfortable to disclose the fact they’re going through fertility treatment, highlighted by our findings that 69.5% took sick leave during fertility treatment rather than ask for time off. One woman told us, “I was worried I wouldn’t be considered for the next promotion if they knew I was trying for a baby”, with the fear that discriminatory assumptions would be made simply by revealing that they’re actively trying for a baby.
These fears are compounded by the fact that there’s little protection for those who are struggling to conceive. Whilst antenatal appointments are given protection under pregnancy legislation, there is no currently statutory right to time off for fertility appointments.
Fertility treatment is often misconstrued in society as a ‘lifestyle choice’, a misconception that is common in the workplace too. One woman told us, “my heart sank when I saw IVF listed alongside cosmetic surgery as an ‘elective’ procedure.” In reality, infertility is a medical issue defined by the World Health Organisation as “a disease of the reproductive system” and should be recognised by employers as such. No-one chooses to have IVF over having a baby the ‘conventional’ way. Treatment also isn’t just for those impacted by medical infertility, but a necessity to allow those in the LGBTQ community and those going solo a chance of parenthood.
A truly inclusive and ‘family friendly’ employer should arguably be placing just as much importance and emphasis on pre-conception and family building, as it does on supporting those with children. It’s an important issue for any workplace, not only in relation to employee engagement but also for attraction and retention, with our survey finding that (just like me) a staggering 36% of those going through fertility treatment consider leaving their jobs.
We’ve created Fertility Matters at Work to guide employers in becoming a more fertility friendly workplace. By putting robust policies in place, educating managers about the issues their teams may be facing, sharing how they can best support them and providing flexible working options with access to both internal and external support networks, our mission is to ensure fertility is recognised and supported within all organisations.
To find out more about how we can support your organisation in becoming one of the first 100 ‘fertility friendly’ companies, visit our website www.fertilitymattersatwork.com.