Following the Fertility Treatment (Employment Rights) bill being read in parliament in June, and lesbian, bi women and trans people no longer facing additional barriers to accessing IVF, fertility is becoming a more prominent topic in the business world.
With this in mind and an overwhelming need for clearer fertility policies and lines of communication to be put in place within workplaces, one of our Co-Founders, Becky Kearns, shares five steps to becoming a fertility-friendly workplace:
1. Clear policies and communications
Often a policy is where employees first look to see if their workplace even recognises fertility treatment. A dedicated fertility policy or guidance is the start, but not the only answer to invoke change in this space. It is one of the many things that organisations can do to signal support to employees, ideally developed in conjunction with the review of current HR policies, combined with awareness raising and educational content to bring the issue to life and embed the conversation as part of the day to day culture of the organisation.
Research from Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) found that ‘having a (fertility) policy is generally beneficial, to give legitimacy to the issue, but there is a need to go beyond a prescriptive policy as described above and apply more personalised responses along the lines of ‘reasonable adjustments’ in equality legislation. The nature of the policy, and its operationalisation, needs to be carefully considered, to recognise the sensitivity of the subject and concerns around privacy and confidentiality.’ Ensuring your business has a fertility policy and/or guidance that meets employee needs is a crucial starting point. In our survey, less than 2% of employees said their company had a fertility policy that actually met their needs.
The accessibility of policy is also very important, we suggest ensuring that a fertility policy is clearly communicated to employees when instated, easy to find and that it isn’t located within another policy, such as a maternity policy for example. It can be emotionally distressing for someone experiencing fertility struggles or pregnancy loss to search through a maternity policy in an attempt to understand what they are entitled to when they are still trying for a baby.
The MMU Report found ‘sometimes, elements of broader HR policies, systems and paperwork around absence management, selection or promotion are not fit for purpose (or adapted in practice) for accounting for complex fertility journey issues, and could add to an individual’s emotional challenges.’ An example cited is from a female management level employee who shared that “Basically after the miscarriage… you tick a box on a sickness form and it says, ‘Is it pregnancy related?’ And you go ‘Yes’ And then you write down miscarriage. And then you get an email two weeks later from HR going ‘Oh, congratulations!'” This is why reviewing current HR policies, systems and communication in its entirety should also be at the top of a business’ agenda.
2. Educational training
Raising awareness of fertility issues in the workplace is an important educational piece for all employees; however, it’s particularly pertinent to offer training for people managers. Research from MMU found that line managers are crucial to the provision of appropriate support, but managers often lack training, guidance (from either internal policy or HR) or autonomy. Topics such as fertility and pregnancy loss are highly sensitive and managers don’t know what they don’t know, it would be unrealistic to expect them to know everything about all of the different complex and personal experiences involved.
The MMU study into ‘Complex Fertility Journeys and Employment’ also found that the managers who seemed most able to offer appropriate levels of support to employees were those with significant management experience and who viewed the issue as an extension/element of managing staff health/wellbeing more generally. It was also found that without training, some managers reported ‘stress, upset, feelings of powerlessness, and/or extra work when dealing with this issue.’
When we hear individuals talk about a positive experience, with a supportive line manager, they often express how ‘lucky’ they were/are. We want to change this so that it isn’t down to the luck of the draw as to whether an employee feels understood and supported by their manager, but the norm for anyone going through fertility challenges in the workplace. This is why we offer support with various educational training resources including comprehensive eLearning (for managers and employees), inclusive panel events and workshops, designed to bring this topic to life and equip managers to navigate these discussions with greater confidence, empathy and flexibility.
3. Workload considerations – Flexibility
As the MMU research and anecdotal evidence tells us, there is a considerable amount of ‘work’ involved for all those navigating fertility journeys. This may include initially identifying fertility problems, dealing with underlying health conditions, liaising with doctors, attending appointments, and undergoing a wide range of investigations and treatments, among other things. All of these take up a great deal of physical time and energy and more often than not are emotionally charged. We encourage organisations to recognise this and build in guidance to support attending appointments, entitlements, allowing time off in hours (not just full days) and hybrid working where possible.
We know that managing supportive adjustments for employees going through this isn’t easy, with the MMU study finding that managers struggled with uncertainty over how long reasonable adjustments/time off could be provided if an employee needed multiple cycles of fertility treatment and how to balance this with the needs of the business.
With this in mind, organisations should endeavour to firstly understand treatment and then factor in those additional needs such as attending appointments, creating spaces for administering of medication, helping them cope with physical symptoms and dealing with grief relating to failed treatment, all within the employees day to day workload.
Constructive and flexible two way conversations are vital to ensure that a balanced approach is achieved for both the business and the individual and allows for some planning to ensure both needs are met.
4. Building Internal Support Networks
In response to our 2022 survey¹ where we asked those going through fertility treatment what would help in the workplace, one participant said: “Having someone in the organisation that actually understood about the fertility journey, someone who is there for both managers and employees to go to for guidance and support would make a huge difference.”
With a breadth of similar responses, we know that providing informal peer-to-peer support for employees who have been through a difficult journey or who are currently experiencing fertility struggles can be a key resource in dealing with the emotional challenges and helping people feel less alone. We often find that, when these issues are talked about internally, those with lived experience may volunteer to help with a passion to support others stemming from their own experience, enabling them to become a dedicated ‘fertility advocate’ / ally and internal signpost for others.
5. External support and signposting
Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP) can be a huge source of support for those on complex fertility journeys. While some clinics offer counselling, it’s often very expensive, and the content and number of sessions can vary. During counselling sessions in clinics, the MMU Report found that there was often little scope for discussing work/career concerns, yet balancing work and fertility can be a huge stress factor. With this in mind, businesses could consider offering more specialised fertility counselling through their workplace schemes, with practitioners specifically trained in fertility counselling who can also provide an opportunity to talk through workload concerns. Occupational Health providers should also be aware of the impact fertility struggles can have, physically and mentally, to provide additional support in any temporary workplace adjustments.
Organisations can’t be expected to know it all or have specialised support for every single scenario when it comes to family building, there is no one-size-fits-all resource but what they can do is signpost to credible, specialised support for different family building journeys. Our membership provides a comprehensive resource list of dedicated charities, credible patient-led platforms and professional psychological support.
Positively changing the fertility journey for all
If businesses implemented a dedicated fertility policy whilst also reviewing their current HR policies, it could positively transform a person’s whole fertility journey and ultimately ensure open and constructive communication between managers and employees. In turn, this could benefit the business hugely in terms of employee engagement and retention, considering our research that 36% of individuals consider leaving their jobs whilst going through treatment.
It’s important to think about now and be ahead of the curve, with conversations in parliament already underway to provide the statutory right to employees for time off for fertility appointments.. A respondent to our 2022 survey commented: “Although they supported me with the flexibility (in work), they were quick to say they have ‘no legal obligation’, and I felt like my flexibility could change or be stopped at any point. A clear policy on fertility treatment would be helpful if backed by law.”
We are encouraging employers to sign up to be one of the first 100 companies to be fertility-friendly. Already we have welcomed a number of forward thinking businesses, which has highlighted to us how many organisations are eager to support their employees and put fertility-friendly policies in place. One organisation we’re really proud to have as a member is Selfridges, a high-end department store chain, voted one of the best in the world.
For more insight on how to become a Fertility Friendly organisation and for more information on our 2022 survey findings, please visit: fertilitymattersatwork.com/report
All findings retrieved from our recent patient survey conducted at The Fertility Show 2022 using 200 respondents – all of which are navigating their fertility journey in the workplace or had done so in the past. The survey is part of a white paper developed by us, using Manchester Metropolitan Universities research into “Complex Fertility Journeys and Employment”