Trying for a baby is an intimate topic and one that doesn’t usually hold a place in work conversations. But what about when it has to? This is a situation that more and more employees are finding themselves in as they begin their journey to become parents and find that it wasn’t as straightforward as they had originally thought. Infertility currently affects 1 in 7 people in the UK and with this number encompassing everyone of working age, it follows logic that there are employees in all sectors up and down the country that may be struggling to conceive. This then entails the possibility of them facing excruciating decisions whether to let their employers into an intimate space that doesn’t concerns work at all by actually admitting that they are trying to get pregnant.
Through research into this subject, it has been found that people are more likely to take time off sick than admit the reality of the situation to their employer. 69.5% of people surveyed in 2020 said they had taken time off “sick” from work and anecdotally this sickness was reported to be with ‘made-up’ illnesses rather than disclosing the truth to their employer that they were instead going through fertility treatment. It is also apparent that people are willing to go to great lengths to hide appointments from their employers in most cases fearing repercussions such as being side-stepped in their careers; being aligned for redundancy in the event of a restructure or just being made to feel they are disloyal to their employer by simply wanting a family. I know this as I was one of those employees that lied and kept it hidden as I was consumed by the shame of it all, and I was also conscious of the fact I was older (39), and most of my colleagues had assumed that I would never have children because of my age. After my second failed attempt at IVF, I took 6 weeks off sick from my mid-level management HR role as the emotional and psychological toll was totally overwhelming. The third attempt was finally disclosed to work as I realised the pressure was too much, and when I finally received a positive pregnancy test, I faced more issues when I miscarried one of the twins I was carrying at 9 weeks. Just prior to this I had asked my employer for reduced working hours temporarily – accompanied by a doctor’s note – and was refused. Navigating loss whilst still carrying a miracle baby is something I never managed to process, even several years later. I would like to report that my overall experience was one of positivity and I felt supported by my employer but sadly this wasn’t the case, and even more of a worry this is the common experience of many people.
To have that conversation with my boss wasn’t an option for me as I was embarrassed and didn’t have a particularly trusting relationship with her. I also felt as though I was the only one this had ever happened to, even though of course that isn’t the case. None of my work policies referred to time off for fertility treatment (research shows that only 1.7% of organisations have a fertility policy/ guidance in place) so, like thousands of others, I made my own pathway to juggle work and treatment in the best way I could.
If you find yourself in this situation then please know that there is no obligation to tell anyone in work what you are going through and not everyone feels confident or comfortable to have these discussions, especially with their boss. BUT it can also help if you do disclose you situation as then your employer may be able to support you. If you do decide to disclose here are some hints and tips in how to have that constructive conversation with your employer:
- Be clear that this issue is both sensitive and personal and identify from the outset who you are comfortable with knowing. These boundaries are very important and can always be reviewed later on.
- Identify if there is any policy/guidance in existence that can be referred to for help with planning time off for appointments. In the absence of any of these then a discussion about flexibility is a must. If there is no paid time off provision available, can you work out of hours or different days to support your work? Can additional temporary support be identified to maintain work projects? Can you take annual leave in blocks of hours as opposed to days to ensure you have adequate ‘rest’ time still available rather than using all of your annual leave to go through your treatment plan?
- Use your organisations Occupational Health/ Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) if one is available to support your own mental/ emotional health.
- If you are comfortable, share your treatment plan with your employer but be clear that everyone’s treatment is different dependent on how you respond to medication which can mean more appointments may be required. This is not one size fits all and it may also be worth mentioning that fertility treatment is not a miracle ‘cure’ for infertility. You may need more than one cycle to achieve a pregnancy.
- You may experience medication side effects whilst going through treatment. Some common ones are irritability, hot flushes, headaches, nausea and feeling bloated/ bruised at the site of the injections. If any of these are significant then you may need some reasonable adjustments to your work environment such as being closer to a window or a toilet or being away from artificial lighting for period of time. These will not be apparent before starting treatment but making your employer aware if they do occur will support you in work.
- Once you have had an embryo transfer you are legally classed as ‘pregnant’ and are protected against unfair dismissal and unfair treatment including discrimination in relation to your potential pregnancy.
- Finally, this is YOUR journey so share what you wish when you wish to do so.
Picture: Becky, Claire & Natalie from Fertility Matters
For more downloadable resources on this subject or if you are interested in becoming a ‘Fertility Friendly’ Employer please visit www.fertilitymattersatwork.com or follow us on LinkedIn Fertility Matters at Work: Overview | LinkedIn or on Instagram Becky, Claire & Natalie (@fertilitymattersatwork) • Instagram photos and videos