We don’t hear much talk about fertility treatment in the workplace even though anyone can be affected and many are.
It may come as a surprise that men are just as likely to experience difficulty with their fertility as women, although when it comes to fertility issues our healthcare system is predominately focused on women’s bodies. People in same-sex relationships who want to have a child who has a biological connection with one partner, will need fertility treatment too. The statistics tell us that infertility affects 1 in 6 couples across the UK but even this is an underestimate as it fails to take into account the number of single people needing treatment.
When we think about the realities for a person undertaking fertility procedures, our first thought might be about the commonly known side effects like nausea, fatigue and hot flushes. But the impact of fertility treatment, often a hidden journey even from friends and family, has implications for every aspect of a person’s life.
Lisa Finnegan who works in HR, has written about her experience of going through treatment whilst working.
“It was an eye-opening experience for me as a HR manager and gave me an insight into how people can bottle up things from their personal life and bring them into work with them, unspoken but present in everything they do.”
Her words eloquently articulate how the effect of receiving treatment inevitably carries over into the workplace. A survey by Fertility Network UK has reflected just this. Their study revealed that 90% of people going through treatment for their reproductive health will have experienced depression at some point. Astonishingly, the same study highlighted that just under half of the participants had experienced suicidal thoughts.
The stress of the financial cost of treatment itself can be debilitating too. The reality is that the majority of people will need to privately fund at least part of their treatment. To put into perspective one cycle of IVF, one of the most common treatments, can cost up to £5000. This cost excludes any complimentary therapies, travel costs or unpaid leave.
Adding another level of stress, the COVID-19 crisis has disrupted treatment for many and we are yet to see the full magnitude of the impact this pandemic has had on fertility clinics.
What we do know is that having the right workplace support can be hugely beneficial for both the employee and the employer.
There is currently no statutory leave for fertility treatment in the UK, in the same way that there is for pre and post-natal care, despite infertility being defined as a disease by the World Health Organisation. Each employer, therefore, is left to choose whether they will offer any leave, and whether this will be paid or unpaid.
With only a small minority of employers known to have a reproductive health policy, approximately two-fifths of people end up reducing their working hours or quitting their jobs because of a lack of workplace support.
In recent years, some organisations have begun offering flexible working and additional paid leave allocated for treatment and recovery. This provision can be accessed by the employee directly receiving treatment, or by the employee who is supporting their partner. The Co-Op are one business who have reviewed and gathered the support available to their employees into an IVF and Fertility Treatment policy.
By specifying the support available in a policy, employers can ensure each employee can access an equal level of support in their organisation. It’s a move towards promoting inclusivity in a treatment journey seemingly riddled with inequality, depending on your gender, your postcode and financial means.
Having defined workplace support is an extremely important step but it will only be as transformational as the employee’s confidence to confide in their employer about their reproductive health. Many people worry about what the impact on their career will be of disclosing such information and this too needs to be addressed.
The NatWest Group are cultivating an open culture on the issue, primarily through their Fertility & Loss Network. The network offers valuable peer support and facilitates safe spaces for people to share their experiences. Such workplace schemes help to reduce the isolation and promote healthy conversations in the workplace.
Fundamentally, a workplace that is supportive of those experiencing fertility issues will be a positive place for an employee at an otherwise distressing time. The benefits to the business of such an approach go beyond engendering higher levels of engagement and loyalty in employees who feel well supported – they include the reputational boost that comes from being viewed externally as a forward-thinking employer.
What can businesses do to support employees?
- Introduce a Reproductive Health policy, if you don’t already have one. This will better facilitate conversations between line managers and employees. Without a policy, the ambiguity around workplace support causes more distress at an already difficult time.
- Ensure existing policies and support are well promoted, so they can be utilised by the employee, whether they themselves are receiving the treatment or supporting their partner.
- Train line managers so they are empowered to know how to respond when someone shares information about their reproductive health. Embed the importance of treating each person as an individual, whose personal circumstances and treatment needs will be unique.
- Create inclusive physical workspaces, so if an employee needs to work in the office, medication can be stored securely and they can have access to appropriate private spaces to administer it, or attend to their emotional health.
The Bank Workers Charity website contains a range of material and interactive tools to support wellbeing.