As co-founder of Fertility Matters at Work and also a previous fertility patient myself, I know how scary it can be disclosing to your employer that you’re going to need time off for fertility treatment.
In my previous role as a HR professional, it wasn’t until I went through this experience that I realised just how much fertility struggles and pregnancy loss can impact a person in the workplace, not just because of the need to attend multiple, unpredictable appointments, but the immense emotional impact too.
A common fear we hear from our Fertility Matters at Work Instagram followers is about the impact that it may have on their career, with one follower telling us “I was worried I wouldn’t be considered for the next promotion if they knew I was trying for a baby”. Personally, I remember it being an incredibly isolating time where I felt a complex mix of emotions. Guilt, knowing that this was inevitably going to take me away from my role, but also fearful about how it would be perceived if people knew that I was actively trying for a baby. Would they think I was less committed to my job? Would I be overlooked for projects and other roles because it would be expected that I’d be going on maternity leave soon? Would everyone in the office know and would I feel constant pressure to update them? Would I even be allowed the time off for appointments?
After much worry, I chose to disclose my need for IVF to my manager and was fortunate to be afforded flexibility with autonomy to manage my own diary which alleviated a huge source of stress. Despite this, I still struggled with the overwhelming impact to my emotional health and impact that it had on me as a person. IVF felt like another fulltime job and eventually, just before IVF cycle number 4, I asked for a career break, desperate for something to change to help me cope. Instead, I was offered the chance to take a sideways move, out of the succession pipeline, to a role which interested me less but allowed me to work 4 days a week, all with the aim of helping me try to regain some balance. It’s only now I look back that I realise just how hard this time was and how close I actually came to leaving my job, with no real plan other than knowing that I simply had to do something differently. I know that I’m not alone in this with our Fertility Matters at Work 2020 survey finding that 36% of those going through fertility treatment at work had too considered leaving their job.
Julianne Boutaleb, Perinatal Psychologist at Parenthood in Mind, puts into words so beautifully why these challenges can have such a significant impact on us at work;
“Work matters to many of us who struggle to conceive. It’s a place where we often have a sense of competence, of identity, of belonging. Aspects of ourselves that can be undermined when we are managing issues of infertility or pregnancy loss.”
I share this because I’ve learned just how important it is to validate what you are going through, especially when grief or the struggle isn’t as widely recognised. After spending many sleepless nights questioning myself and thinking the problem was me – that I simply wasn’t ‘strong enough’ to manage both work and IVF – I realise now the real magnitude of what I had experienced. If you’re reading this and feeling this way now, please know that you’re not alone in this, with as many as 90% of those going through fertility struggles experiencing feelings of depression (Fertility Network UK) and 68% of those we surveyed (Fertility Matters at Work 2020 survey) felt that it had a substantial impact on their mental health and wellbeing.
As scary as it was, I know that without disclosing that I was going through this life event, I wouldn’t have been able to have the flexibility I needed, which no doubt made this stressful period of my life a great deal easier than it would have been having to try and hide it.
So, why don’t we feel comfortable to disclose?
Fear of disclosure often stems from there being a lack of awareness, education and conversation about such topics in the workplace (and wider society too). Our 2020 survey found that almost 72% of workplaces had no fertility policy and, of those who did, only 1.7% of employees felt that it met their needs. A policy isn’t the answer to everything, but it is hugely important because it offers a starting point for organisations to acknowledge that this is an issue people face and one that they will support. Quite simply, it can offer employees both permission and reassurance in talking about what is a very personal issue.
How can your employer support
you if they don’t know?
This is a question I often pose to people. It can feel like a huge leap of faith disclosing something so personal, but by doing so it has the potential to lift the huge burden of having to keep this complex experience a secret from everyone in the workplace. Fertility treatment is stressful enough, without having to worry about hiding the fact that you need to attend some medical appointments and procedures.
Here are a few tips to help you feel more confident in taking the steps to disclose the fact that you’re needing medical assistance to conceive with someone you trust at work.
Schedule a confidential chat with your line manager or HR, expressing that you’d like to discuss something that is personal within a private space.
Check your workplace policies
Before you speak to them a good start is to check your workplace policies. Be prepared for there not being a specific fertility policy, but instead often there are lines about how they manage time off for medical appointments within policies such as flexible working or absence policies (they can also sometimes frustratingly be found within maternity policies too).
Remember this is a medical procedure and not a simple ‘lifestyle choice’ as it can be often misunderstood. One follower (of Fertility Matters at Work Instagram) shared with us
“My heart sank when I saw IVF listed alongside cosmetic surgery as ‘elective’ in my workplace fertility policy.”
Don’t be afraid to challenge this assumption (and point them in the direction of Fertility Matters at Work), being clear that you will need some time off for medical appointments relating to fertility treatment – they are medical appointments and should be treated as such.
Prepare yourself some notes to help you mentally prepare, this can help you navigate the conversation, particularly as talking about needing to go through fertility treatment or pregnancy loss can be a very emotional topic. Try not to worry if you do get upset, sometimes it’s helpful for them to understand the impact that it is having so they can be more empathetic to your situation.
Confidentiality – Be clear on who knows and who you would like to know.
Be prepared to educate – Be aware that they may not have ever been exposed to what fertility treatment entails. I know that before I went through it myself, I would have imagined it to simply be a few appointments. You may want to bring along some information about what a typical cycle of treatment entails or even your protocol so that you can manage expectations around the unpredictability and frequency of appointments (e.g., such as egg collection being very difficult to predict and plan for).
Be proactive and come to them with solutions – Think of how you can temporarily make adjustments to your role to accommodate the flexibility you need during this time. Being proactive and presenting solutions rather than waiting for them to fix it for you will help to create a positive dialogue from the start. Suggest ways in which your workload can be managed flexibly around treatment, minimising disruption to the business, whilst ensuring that you are supported. It is likely to involve some level of absence, but temporary planned absence is much easier for an employer to manage.
Communication plan – Agree ways to communicate updates throughout your treatment such as a confidential email/call twice a week updating them on any potential absences. This will help them to plan as much as possible, whilst helping you to manage the unwanted stress of having to constantly provide updates.
Be aware of additional support options available to you if needed such as Occupational Health or counselling services through Employee Assistance Programmes and don’t be afraid to ask for it.
Considering all of these points prior to disclosing puts you in a much stronger position to feel more confident as you approach the topic. Be proactive in putting forward solutions in a positive way, start a constructive dialogue which will hopefully lead to better support.
If you’d like to discover more about Becky’s work, visit Fertility Matters at Work at www.fertilitymattersatwork.com. Becky and the team are passionate about starting workplaces conversations and raising awareness on this issue, educating employers about how they can better support on this journey and become Fertility Friendly.