Fertility In The Workplace

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For any of us who have had to manage the emotions following a fertility issue diagnosis with everything that comes with IVF or ICSI treatment and a job as well, the news that the Fertility Network has launched a Fertility in the Workplace initiative to support employers and employees will come as welcome news.

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.’

Put simply, employers have a duty of care to their employees, especially when it comes to health issues.  The question is probably whether fertility issues are seen as health issues.  For those of us who are either experiencing the numerous and multi-faceted challenges that come as part of fertility issues, or are undergoing the physical and emotional rollercoaster that is any kind of assisted conception, the answer will be a resounding yes! And also backed up by the World Health Organisation who class infertility as an illness. Fertility treatment is therefore the recommended medical treatment for this type of illness.

However in the UK, we do not have a statutory right to request time off or flexible working hours when undergoing fertility treatment, like we do for pre-natal and post-natal care.

Why The Need For A Workplace Fertility Policy

There are still many of us who don’t feel able to tell our boss when we are facing fertility challenges, or who do but are faced with using holiday or having to take unpaid leave as they negotiate the fertility obstacle course.

‘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.’

The aim of this Fertility Initiative is double-layered:  to ensure that employees are treated fairly, with no damage to their career, and with understanding, empathy and support and to provide a framework for employers so their business can implement a fertility in the workplace policy.  This approach has been designed to provide guidance for both employees and employers, and specifically for the latter to learn a greater understanding of how infertility and fertility treatment can impact on all aspects of life.

Although anyone who lives with endometriosis and other fertility issues knows the huge impact these can have on your wellbeing and ability to work, this initiative is focused on the impact of IVF and assisted conception. It can be huge and wide-ranging. For anyone who has gone through IVF, you will know all about the multiple appointments, some of which often have to be arranged or rescheduled at the last minute and the anxiety that comes with it. And when you add in stress about how you’re going to manage your workload, explain things to your boss, arrange for cover and catch up on work too, and well as the guilt that can come with it, it becomes a conflict between your work demands and the physical, emotional and time-associated demands of fertility treatment.  Help and support in managing this conflict is essential; flexibility and understanding of your needs is vital.

To break this down, we typically require around six to eight flexible days at work, this includes appointments for a variety of consultations, tests and scans, egg collection and transfer. Men also need to attend appointments for tests and sample collection, but should ideally be there to support their partner or surrogate for more invasive pre-treatment procedures, egg collection and transfer.

Workplace Fertility Research Results

The research Fertility Network has undertaken in this area reveals that just 26% of people having IVF reported their workplace had some policy relating to treatment, 58% said their employer did not have any such policy, and 19% were not sure.  The lack of a fertility workplace policy was also associated with increased levels of emotional distress.

In the same survey, 50% were worried that treatment would adversely affect their career prospects; 35% felt their career was damaged as a result of fertility treatment and 19%  had to reduce their work hours or quit their job. 13% of people reduced their work hours and 6% left their job due to their treatment.

Some employers viewed IVF as an optional medical treatment so there was no fertility workplace policy in place. Some had no idea what was involved in IVF treatment so those women concerned had to explain and justify why they needed time off for scans and tests.

The Fertility Network UK survey, published in October 2016, showed that those having treatment experienced high levels of distress and 42% even experienced suicidal feelings. “Despite concerns about privacy, potential damage to career prospects and lack of employer understanding, 72% disclosed to their employer, mainly because they needed to ask for time off work. However, only 23% reported the existence of specific workplace policy relating to fertility treatment, 42% reported really good support from their employer, and 60% felt their employer would benefit from education to help them understand the needs of someone having treatment.”

What Should I Do If I’m An Employer?

Having a policy in place and a general understanding of what IVF treatment entails is in all likelihood going to become the norm as the average age for giving birth increases and more people could potentially turn to IVF, so it’s sensible to put a plan in place sooner rather than later.  Your business will also thank you for it.

What Might A Good Fertility Policy Include?

  • Flexible working hours and/or time off work
  • A good understanding of the assisted conception treatment process for both men and women, same sex couples and surrogates
  • A supportive and understanding environment in which to discuss and plan for the demands of treatment

This has the potential to benefit both employees and employers as it could reduce the amount of time off needed, increase employee loyalty, minimise any additional work-related stress felt by employees and ensure a supportive work environment.  If you are an employer reading this who doesn’t have a workplace fertility policy (or would like reasons to give to your employer as to why a policy of this nature could be a good thing for them), employees resort to using annual leave, unpaid leave, working part-time or ending their employment.  As an employer, think about the value of your employees.  They may feel they have to leave an unsupportive employer, leading to costs of recruiting and training a replacement.  Just a little food for thought.

If you are an employee preparing to undergo IVF, seek support and advice from Fertility Network UK and their new workplace initiative if you don’t feel comfortable broaching this on your own and if you’re an employer, your workforce may thank you in ways you hadn’t realised.  Further support and advice can be found at https://fertilitynetwork.org.

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