Fertility Network launches Fertility in the Workplace initiative to support employers and employees
Speaking at the launch of Fertility Network’s Fertility in the Workplace initiative, chief executive Aileen Feeney said:
‘Fertility treatment is on the increase with approaching 68,000 treatment cycles carried out every year in the UK and 1 in 6 couples (3.5 million people) affected, yet the majority of employers do not have a workplace policy providing the vital support employees going through fertility treatment need.’
‘Research shows having a supportive fertility in the workplace policy is good for business and employees – levels of distress associated with fertility treatment are reduced and employees are more likely to be productive and remain in work – that’s why Fertility Network is launching Fertility in the Workplace – an initiative designed to help employers support employees facing fertility challenges.’
‘Careers need not be damaged or jobs lost if there is an appropriate fertility in the workplace policy identifying the specific support available for couples or individuals having IVF. Introducing Fertility Network’s Fertility in the Workplace initiative ensures employees are treated fairly and empathetically and feel fully supported. The initiative provides a framework for employers to implement a fertility in the workplace policy and, crucially, provides guidance for both employees and for employers, who may have limited understanding of the impact of infertility and what fertility treatment is really like.’
IVF’s emotional impact is immense: Fertility Network’s Impact of Fertility Problems survey (2016) revealed 90 per cent of people were depressed and 42 per cent suicidal. But not only is IVF extremely distressing, it is also time-consuming and time-sensitive with multiple appointments at often distant clinics and a need for flexibility as last-minute adjustments to appointments are often required. The result is women and men having fertility treatment experience conflict between the demands of work and the time and emotional demands of treatment. Workplace support is crucial for managing this conflict but sadly this is typically lacking.
Fertility Network’s research highlights just 26 per cent of people having IVF reported their workplace had some policy relating to treatment (58 per cent said their employer did not, and 19 per cent were not sure). The lack of a fertility workplace policy was associated with even higher levels of distress.
‘Companies are failing already distressed employees if they do not provide a supportive fertility in the workplace policy,’ said Ms Feeney. ‘Fertility Network’s survey underlines just how much the lack of workplace support affects people undergoing IVF. 50 per cent of respondents worried treatment would affect their career prospects; 35 per cent felt their career was damaged as a result of fertility treatment and one in five people (19 per cent) had to reduce their work hours or quit their job (13 per cent of respondents reduced their hours and 6 per cent left their job due to treatment).’
Kate Gilbert (a pseudonym), chose not to disclose the fact that she was going through IVF treatment to her employer, who did not have a fertility workplace policy: ‘I was told I needed to use annual leave for time off because IVF is seen as an optional medical treatment. It would have been a huge relief if there was some kind of workplace protocol in place that made it easy for me to talk about it without me feeling like I was making myself vulnerable for discrimination. It all feels so awkward and secretive and the one person I chose to share this with in HR wasn’t understanding or supportive. She had no information on what IVF treatment entails and therefore I had to explain everything to her and justify the time off I might need for the operation and scans.
Hannah Pettitt Malafaia 42, experienced the benefits of a fertility in the workplace policy: ‘It is really important to have support and guidance for fertility treatment in the workplace. Having a supportive workplace really does help people. It gives them a positive and flexible environment to be in when they are going through such a difficult time as it can be both physically and mentally stressful. The nature of IVF treatment requires some flexibility in regards to timing and appointments so having this flexibility at work is really important.’
Jenna, 32, benefited from a fertility workplace policy and a supportive manager who understood the impact of infertility and fertility treatment: ‘My new manager was incredibly supportive. She knew the time pressures, stress levels and emotional and physical toll IVF takes on a person and so she had a much friendlier, individual approach to my treatment during work. I didn’t have to worry about taking whatever time I needed for appointments and treatment itself. I have never been asked to make time up. There is just an adult expectation that I wouldn’t take more than I needed and would continue to deliver my objectives to the best of my ability.’
‘This approach was a godsend, as I know of other people in my position with different employers, who have had the worry of taking time off, not having enough annual leave to cover it, or a doctor refusing to give a doctor’s note even though their employer is demanding one. The fact I didn’t have to worry about work was fantastic, and I think it definitely helped with my mental health during treatment, and the level of stress I experienced. When I suffered two miscarriages within four months, I was told explicitly to take the time I needed to grieve and process what had happened.’
‘My work situation hasn’t impacted my fertility treatment, and I truly believe it has helped. The policy is a great backstop for those that maybe don’t have such supportive managers, but I think it could offer more. Realistically, 5 days paid leave (particularly for those who live far away and have to take a whole day off for a scan) isn’t enough to cover the time needed for this type of treatment. Also, I think that managers should have some sort of guide, or awareness pack, as infertility effects 1 in 6 of their employees, and the sensitivity of this treatment makes it very hard for some to talk about.’
Francesca Hockham, 37, has experience of both the lack of a fertility workplace policy and the benefits of one: ‘Having a fertility workplace policy makes all the difference to the likely success of IVF treatment as it takes away a huge amount of stress. In workplaces offering flexible working and extra days for IVF appointments it is also more likely that they will get more from their staff as they will not take time off for stress; I actually gave more hours as I was so grateful to my employee for their understanding.’
Berenice Smith, founder of Walk In Our Shoes and champion of World Childless Week, has experience of the difficulties of combining fertility treatment and work. She says: ‘Ignorance about fertility treatment can lead to isolation and stress. These feelings are increased if human resources teams and managers simply aren’t aware of how impactful infertility is on the performance and health of employees. Learning and sharing experiences is so important, so I thoroughly endorse Fertility in the Workplace. Initiatives which support colleagues and friends who are struggling to have children or find themselves childless not by choice by encouraging conversation and suggesting formal policies and inclusion in diversity awareness can only ever be a positive step forward,’
Deborah Donnell, 32, did not take any time off from work for fertility treatment during her first IVF cycle, which failed. She says: ‘I took no time off work at all: I did tell my boss what was happening and explained there would be mornings I would be late but I made up the time. My fertility treatment appointments were very early in the morning and, as it is 1.5 hours away on a day with no traffic and three hours away during rush hour, there were days I was leaving the house at 5am to go to the clinic, then back down the road to work and then having to stay on late to make up the time missed. It was so very tiring and sometimes stressful as I didn’t want to let my colleagues down.’
Before beginning a second IVF cycle, Deborah approached her employers with Fertility Network UK’s information about fertility employment issues and was allowed to take additional paid leave, as well as unpaid leave, during her fertility treatment. She says: ‘In the employee manual there was a section for maternity leave and adoption leave but not fertility treatment. Fertility issues are so common there really should be something about it in every workplace, so that people know what they are entitled to and feel secure knowing they won’t get penalised for missing work or coming in late. Before I spoke to Fertility Network and knew about the charity’s fertility employment information I would have really stressed out about asking for time off, even unpaid.’