Fertility challenges aren’t a new issue within organisations, they’ve been hidden in plain sight for far too long. It’s not a wellbeing ‘fad’ but a significant life-event that affects as many as 1 in 6 people globally, according to recent stats from the World Health Organisation.
The stigma and taboo surrounding this topic has perpetuated a cycle of silence in the workplace, a lack of conversation about the topic from both the individual and the organisational perspective, leading to a lack of recognition and a perceived lack of support.
Two of our co-founders, Becky and Claire, have over 35 years combined HR experience, and during this time, no one ever approached them to enquire about support for fertility treatment. This wasn’t because people didn’t need support; but that they didn’t feel the issue would be recognised as it wasn’t reflected anywhere in policy, guidance or conversations.
It was only after we navigated our own fertility challenges whilst at work and then went on to speak publicly about our experiences, that we realised just how common it is and the glaring hole that exists in terms of workplace support, support that would have helped us and others to feel valued, supported and engaged.
Recently, we launched ‘Hidden in Plain Sight’, a campaign to highlight the problems facing organisations that are hidden in plain sight, yet are very real for individuals facing fertility struggles and loss in the workplace:
Lack of policy
Lack of policy is one of the fertility challenges facing people in the workplace.
One of our surveys in 2020 highlighted that 72% of organisations don’t have a fertility policy in place. Almost three years on, we wanted to gather some more current insights to see whether the landscape had changed at all, and so we polled our Instagram followers to see what they had to say.
Unfortunately, results showed a staggering 64% still don’t have a fertility policy in place, with another 15% sharing that the topic of fertility is mentioned within another, wider policy.
- Still don’t have a fertility policy in place 64% 64%
- The topic of fertility is mentioned within another, wider policy 15% 15%
We also asked our followers to share their experiences relating to workplace policies when it comes to fertility treatment, and the responses were stark. One respondent said: “Unfortunately, my workplace has no policy. I’ve now been through three rounds of IVF, and I’ve had to cut my hours down as I couldn’t cope trying to make hours up working until late at night.
“I’m about to start my fourth round of IVF, and I’ve saved all my holidays up for this round. Recently, someone in my company just had eye surgery, and they got time off for the procedures and to recover; how is it fair!”
Another respondent added how time off related to menopause challenges is prioritised over time off for IVF: “No fertility policy at my work, although we do now have a menopause one, so not sure why that is seen as necessary whilst fertility is not. The irony of me devoting my career to looking after other people’s children whilst having none of mine is not lost on me.
“My work tries so hard to be flexible when it comes to people’s families, such as letting parents leave early to watch nativities; paying parents when they take time off to look after their sick children, but the same doesn’t seem to stretch to people trying to have a family in the first place.”
Other shocking responses include one individual being told that IVF was ‘optional’ like an Invisalign or a breast enlargement. Another was told their egg collection treatments were an ‘elective procedure’, so they had to take holidays.
Only 21% of respondents shared that their company actually had a fertility policy. Those who shared their experience of having this available to them highlighted the difference it makes to a challenging fertility journey. One respondent shared that their organisation offers up to 10 days of leave per cycle, time off for tests, and four weeks of leave for those who have suffered a miscarriage.
Whilst we don’t advocate for policy for policy’s sake here at Fertility Matters at Work, for a topic so personal and a life event so individual and complex, having guidance as a starting point of reference is critical. We understand that not all organisations will be able to offer up to 10 days of paid leave per treatment cycle, but what they can do is encourage flexible working and maybe allow employees to take time for appointments in hours, rather than days. It’s important to recognise the benefits of providing support and flexibility when it comes to staff engagement and retention, as one respondent who had a positive experience shared, “This level of support at work has been invaluable and I don’t understand how people get through this without a supportive workplace… I’ve been able to stay enthusiastic about my job and be productive without being at risk of burnout.”
A policy is only the foundation to supporting employees going through fertility challenges. To really meet people’s needs, it’s essential that policies use inclusive language, recognising everyone who may need support through fertility treatment (for example, the LGBTQ+ community, solo parents, partners), that they are not hidden within a maternity policy and that they are inclusive of all forms of treatments and investigations.
Lack of support
Lack of support is another challenge facing those needing help to conceive in the workplace, and this reality is a direct consequence of fertility being hidden in plain sight. According to our 2022 survey statistics, 42% of those facing fertility challenges had no idea where to turn to for support at work, and 61% didn’t feel comfortable talking.
From our own lived experiences, we also didn’t feel comfortable talking about fertility treatment; it’s an incredibly personal and sensitive topic, and in opening up you’re showing your hand at a very early stage and effectively saying ‘I’m trying for a baby.’ Still, there are ways that your organisations can encourage people to feel more comfortable to share and seek support.
Being able to seek support for an experience so personal requires a culture that creates a psychologically safe environment for employees to share and for managers to feel equipped to support. This means organisation wide awareness raising, training for managers, sharing stories to provide visibility, building internal networks and having clear signposts to external support – initiatives that we at Fertility Matters at Work support our member organisations with.
Our 2020 survey showed us that almost 70% of those going through fertility treatment took sick leave. Anecdotally, many told us that this was to hide treatment from their employer because they didn’t feel comfortable disclosing, but others had no other option than to take the time as a sickness absence because flexible working around appointments wasn’t available to them.
Unplanned absence is much harder for employers to manage than planned absence and flexible working, so we encourage organisations to put policies and guidance in place within an environment where employees feel safe to disclose that they are undertaking fertility treatment, enabling two-way conversations about how best to manage appointments.
We know that flexible working is key. Research during the pandemic showed that flexibility is achievable , and more and more people will come to expect this from work. 83% of those we surveyed in 2020 said that the pandemic had made working through fertility treatment easier, with the ability to work from home a key reason for this.
Knowing what your employees are going through and being able to provide appropriate support through a two-way conversation can help keep employees in work, meaning that specifically agreed hours, as opposed to full days of sickness absence, may be taken to help relieve the burden on the individual and also on the business too.
Beginning to record absence related to fertility can also allow a tangible way for organisations to measure the need for this leave and adjust its support accordingly. Even though the right to time off isn’t mandated by law, an employer who is Fertility Friendly, who recognises and supports the need for fertility treatment, will benefit from better engagement, a positive reputation, long-term retention and talent attraction.
Fertility treatment doesn’t just put strain on an individual physically and emotionally, it can also lead to financial strain too. Therefore job security and safety is hugely important to those on a more challenging path to parenthood, meaning that people will only share that they’re going through this experience if they feel safe to do so.
Organisations are losing talent as a result of not providing adequate support for those struggling to bring home a baby. We know that 36% of those going through fertility treatment will consider leaving their jobs, and anecdotally through the many messages we receive, many do leave their jobs due to the lack of support they receive at work. It’s probably not a topic typically covered within an exit interview, but an issue that is well and truly hidden in plain sight for organisations. Considering the amount it costs to replace talent, we know that this is an issue that businesses will want to be addressing.
Impact to Wellbeing
Not only does going through fertility challenges impact people physically, but there’s also a significant impact on mental wellbeing. Wellbeing is a huge part of the People Agenda within organisations today, with a big focus in recent years being on supporting mental wellbeing through different life stages such as menopause. It is essential that there is awareness of and signposting to external support for those experiencing fertility struggles or pregnancy loss. A recent study by Fertility Network UK found that 90% of people who had fertility problems reported feeling depressed, 50% said they felt out of control, frustrated, helpless, sad, fearful and worried nearly all of the time. 42% said they experienced suicidal thoughts. Stats that are shocking, but very real and another issue that is hidden in plain sight.
This is why signposting to additional employee support through Employee Assistance Programmes, Occupational Health, or specialist counselling services is important for supporting the mental wellbeing of employees experiencing this life-event.
Making the first step to become Fertility Friendly
To make a progressive step forward in your wellbeing strategy, it’s important to ask yourself:
- What’s included in your policy?
- Is your language inclusive?
- Does it represent everyone who may need fertility treatment?
- Is it clear what’s offered in terms of flexible working and support?
- Does it help managers provide consistent support with guidance for holding supportive conversations?
- Is your culture one which would encourage employees to share and seek support?
- Do you provide additional help to support mental wellbeing?
In answering these questions, you can gather a clear picture of what steps you need to take to improve your offering. Fertility Matters at Work can support implementing all of the above, with our membership package designed to create that cultural shift needed to become Fertility Friendly.
To discuss what this could look like for your organisation, book a call with us.