Just like the menopause conversation only a few years ago, fertility is now being spoken about on a wide scale as part of the news agenda. There is a much-needed focus on the gap in support and education around this issue and its impact on individuals in the workplace. Such a sensitive and personal topic can be difficult to address, especially in a professional setting, and so we at Fertility Matters at Work (FMAW) have outlined some positive steps organisations and their people managers can implement to best support colleagues who may currently be going through fertility challenges or in may experience in the future.
Almost three quarters (72%) of respondents in our recent 2022 survey felt that the topic of fertility was not recognised and valued in their organisation¹. Many felt unable to talk to their employer, which is why it is essential that those in leadership and managerial positions ensure that their direct reports are supported throughout their fertility journey and beyond.
Here are five steps managers can take to support those going through fertility treatment at work:
1. Educate yourself on fertility
You don’t know what you don’t know and it’s impossible to know everything about every challenging life event that may be presented to you. That said, it’s important that people managers have an understanding of how fertility issues can impact their team members, not just physically, but overwhelmingly emotionally too.
Research from Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) highlighted how “line managers are crucial to the provision of appropriate support”, which is why ensuring they are educated is an important element in creating a supportive work environment. Many of our respondents have told us that they felt “lucky” to have a supportive line manager, often because they had personal experience themselves or knew someone who had. Support at work for fertility issues shouldn’t be down to the luck of the draw, it ought to be the norm.
Educating line managers will encourage employees to feel more confident and comfortable to open up and seek the relevant support. They will then be safe in the knowledge that their experience is likely to be recognised and understood. It will also help managers feel better equipped to handle these sensitive and very personal conversations.
Raising awareness can be through engaging lunch and learn sessions, training workshops or interactive online eLearning modules, all of which FMAW provides. Our training is accredited by the CPD and written by those with lived personal experience and professional HR insight, designed to balance education with real life stories to really bring this often unspoken topic to life.
2. Establish a supportive environment, with policy and guidance as a foundation
A supportive environment starts with the culture of an organisation, not just in its policies and procedures, but its willingness to recognise and talk about topics such as fertility, build internal support networks signals and provide that ‘psychological safety’.
Imagine how someone who may have just found out that they may not be able to have children is feeling – trying to navigate how they will access fertility treatment. Where will they likely first look for support? Their first step may be to explore any policies and procedures that are written down, to get an indication as to whether or not they will be supported and indeed what that support will look like. Ask yourself whether appropriate policies exist within your organisation, where they can be found and if they are fit for purpose?
Where guidance sits and how it is communicated is important too. Simple mistakes such as locating guidance around IVF or pregnancy loss within an existing maternity or parental leave policy can be particularly triggering those who are desperately trying to become parents.
Policy and guidance is vital, but is only the first step. A written policy is no use if the culture surrounding it doesn’t encourage two way conversations and support, ideally through direct line managers, but if not within HR or alternative internal support networks.
Another part of creating a supportive working environment internally is about day-to-day conversations and interactions with the team. It can help to be mindful and aware of potential triggering questions about children or informal team events, such as baby showers or surprise pregnancy announcements, that should be handled with care and sensitivity, giving thought to those struggling to conceive.
Workplaces should consider what external emotional support services they are signposting to and offering alongside internal guidance, such as access to therapy and counselling – that has an understanding of fertility issues, providing options to access specialised external support.
3. Embrace and enable flexible working
In our 2020 survey, conducted during the pandemic we found that a staggering 83% of employees had found fertility treatment easier to manage alongside work due to the ability to work from home. Since then, flexible and hybrid working has become more of the norm for many of us. This can allow employees greater flexibility and discretion to manage work around the multiple appointments needed for treatment and also being able to take medication, such as injections and pessaries, in a safe and comfortable environment. This can be managed whilst still being able to perform their role in some capacity.
Flexibility is much more preferable than the 69.5% who told us that they had to take sick leave during their treatment, with many telling us they felt they had no choice.
Attending appointments for treatment, although frequent and unpredictable, doesn’t have to mean having full days off work. Flexible working could include the adjustment of start and finish times, for example, to support employees through the treatment period.
If people managers are educated around the realities of treatment and feel better equipped to hold these conversations, then constructive dialogues around what can work temporarily both for the employee and the business can be achieved. The result would be an employee who feels supported and who is able to continue to deliver, safe in the knowledge that they can manage both work and treatment alongside each other.
4. Create awareness around fertility
A policy is a starting point, but to really make a change there needs to be awareness and conversations. Hearing others speak about a challenge you’re facing can be hugely validating and help those feeling isolated and unsupported feel less alone. We often find that in hosting our popular panel discussions internally, organisations experience a ‘domino effect’ of employees all saying the words ‘me-too’ and wanting to help. Showing that this conversation isn’t a taboo,it affects a lot of people and that it is recognised and is supported is a powerful way of giving permission to others to speak out. It also helps to create a psychologically safe environment for employees to truly bring their whole self to work and seek support whilst going through treatment.
With 61% telling us that they don’t feel confident talking to their employer about trying for a baby³, it’s clear that organisations must try harder to create a fertility-aware environment, which includes all of the above.
5. Consider employee benefits
It’s not just the physical and psychological strain that impacts individuals, fertility treatment can be costly, with the financial strain often adding to the already substantial emotional distress. There are a number of ways in which organisations can support their people with benefits, whether it be in subtle or a more substantial way. We recognise that not all employers will be able to fund huge fertility benefit programmes.
Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP’s), Occupational Health and Private Healthcare schemes are benefit options that may be able to provide additional support, particularly when it comes to counselling or emotional support.
It may also be appreciated by employees to have a level of paid leave available for treatment as an option to take other than annual leave or unpaid leave, which can add to the financial burden they may already be experiencing. Some organisations offer interest-free fertility loans which are paid back through salary to support with paying for treatment, whilst others are considering fertility benefit schemes to provide access to treatment.
Supporting colleagues on with fertility in the workplace
With a significant 42% of respondents having no idea where to turn to find out what support was in place at their organisation to help them through treatment whilst at work, it’s clear that there is a huge amount of work to be done in professional settings to make employees feel comfortable and confident going forward with fertility journeys at work.
Implementing all of the above, in a way that works best for your workplace is key to being a fertility-friendly employer. This vital piece of work will increase talent attraction, engagement and retention, whilst reducing sickness absence that may have previously been used to ‘hide’ fertility treatment. Not only could these steps help to open up communication and conversation, they could completely transform an individual’s fertility journey, whilst also benefiting the workplace.
Our membership package is designed to bring about a sustainable and long-lasting culture change, not just a tick-box exercise. Organisations who join us in making the commitment to become fertility-friendly are guided through our EASE methodology to become fertility-friendly accredited. Our support includes eLearning modules which provide line manager and employee training, professionally and sensitively hosted panel discussions, policy advice and consultancy and a growing resource library covering the vast topic of fertility and pregnancy loss in the workplace.
We’re currently looking for the first 100 businesses willing to commit to becoming Fertility Friendly. We have already welcomed several leading British businesses including Selfridges, News UK, Mediacom, Sidley, Criteo, RHP with many more to come. It’s really great to see so many companies coming forward and showing their commitment to supporting employees and implementing fertility policies.
To sign up and become a Fertility Friendly organisation, visit our website here.
All findings were 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”