For any patient undergoing the demands of fertility treatment whilst working they will be all too aware that both areas (work and treatment) can feel like a full-time commitment. Patients often talk to us at FNUK about how all-consuming infertility can be, that 90% of waking hours can be absorbed focusing on treatment, appointments, and uncertainty. Fertility Network UK and Fertifa conducted a patient survey in November 2021.
A key word that came up repeatedly in our survey results was “presenteeism”, patients just about holding the tense balance between work and treatment together but not feeling fully engaged with their work. Perhaps more worrying was the stark finding that 38% of all those surveyed had considered or had in fact left their work due to not being able to balance the two.
Put simply we need to do far better in supporting the 3.5 million people facing fertility struggles each year when it comes to work / life balance. In not doing so, we risk long term mental health, economic and social implications not just for the individual but for society as a whole.
It has been our privilege at Fertility Network UK to help workplaces navigate all these issues and more via our Fertility in the workplace scheme. Since our 2015 partnership with the Unions in Scotland, we have been working with vast numbers of places of work from Charities such as Cancer research and St Martin’s in the field to Hospital Trusts, local authorities and large national and international organisations such as HSBC, Autotrader and Pepsi-co. The last two years in fact have seen an explosion of interest in this topic, partly off the back of the amazing work being done around mental health in the workplace but also because of the wonderful work around the menopause. It is now time for that same focus on infertility and work and we are proud as the national charity to be a key part in leading this.
In our work over the years with fertility patients we have seen reoccurring themes emerge when trying to balance fertility treatment and work.
Starting the conversation with managers and at work
If you are finding yourself in the diagnosis or investigation stage of Infertility life can suddenly feel shaken up irreversibly. People talk of the holistic nature of fertility struggles and of entering an experience of grief and grieving for the life you thought you would have. When navigating this new world, it can often feel incredibly hard to speak to work and to managers, to bring in the world of work into what can feel a hugely personal issue.
There is no right or wrong way to approach this and we are aware that not every manager will have the same level of comprehension or indeed empathy. But where it IS possible to speak to one or two trusted people at work it may well be of help in the long term. The demands of treatment can be myriad and affect a person’s health, emotional abilities, and capacity to work. Our research has found that the average person going through an IVF cycle will need between 8-10 flexible working days for appointments, scans, egg collection and embryo transfer. Clinic appointments often over run or are called on last minute meaning workplace flexibility is essential. Starting the conversation can feel intimidating so we would recommend an email or conversation to state the medical need for support at this time, highlighting the focus on medical necessity rather than lifestyle choice. Fertility Network UK has a useful factsheet that can be shared with family and friends to explain the basics of infertility.
Another great resource is to ask your clinic for a handout of your treatment protocol (with the acknowledgement that treatment very often deviates) to talk through what each stage may mean in terms of impact of medication as well as time commitment and therefore how work can support you at each stage.
The foundation for all these discussions is to work together, within the parameters of vital medical treatment, to facilitate a positive work environment. It is also worth checking if there is a workplace policy, if there needs to be any reasonable adjustments and what support can be offered going forward. Juggling the two areas of your life can be demanding but with proper support and flexibility it is possible.
How to tell (or not tell) work mates
Linked to the above is the often-asked question about telling work colleagues. Again, there really is no right response – only what works for you and what might help with this situation. People can often find work a safe haven from the demands of fertility treatment and a place where life can continue to feel fairly normal. Some people may therefore choose to keep work entirely ‘separate’ from treatment. However, for many it can be useful to have a couple of trusted people at work who know some of the struggles you almost certainly will be encountering.
Be clear about what type of support you need
Sharing some basic information about what your fertility treatment entails can be really helpful and being clear about what support means for you rather than what they assume it to look like. It is vital in all this that whatever support you ask for is on your terms and appropriate to you specifically. For the issue to be acknowledged but not for you to feel swamped by others’ well intended offers of support. Be clear about what you need and be open that this may change over time.
Dealing with triggers at work
One of the issues often discussed at the support groups we run at Fertility Network is that of other people’s assumptions and insensitivities around the experience of fertility struggles, and this is an experience often played out at work. In our pronatalist society there is often an assumption that most people will have a partner and a family and that children are a given in a person’s life. Pregnancy announcements, scan pictures and sharing of the highs and lows of parenthood all can really impact on someone’s workday when facing struggles themselves. The key here is twofold. Firstly, workplaces themselves need to become more fertility friendly places to work, to acknowledge the prevalence and enormity of this life event. Secondly, for the individual themselves it is to make sure that support is there when and if triggers might occur. Who are the people you can surround yourselves with who will just ‘get it’, empathise and be there to listen? The support group, friends, colleagues and family members who will be there for you when the day feels too difficult. There is a wide range of support available from Apps to online groups and we need not feel alone when facing these challenges.
Coping with next steps and considering the long-term
There are so many uncertainties associated with fertility struggles and one of the realities is that they very often become a long-term issue, covering numerous attempts over years. The clinical focus can very often be intense while in treatment itself and yet in between cycles or while moving onto other options things can become much quieter and this can also be mirrored by peers and family’s ability to empathise.
It is vital therefore that you create a group of people who will be ‘in it for the long haul’ and who intrinsically understand the emotions you will face. Helping your workplace to realise the long-range nature of infertility and to understand that it is not just the seasons of ‘treatment activity’ when you may need support is really important. Support needs to be there at work not just for the person about to have egg collection but for the person who has decided the better of the options is to end treatment and navigate the new terrain of life without children. In all these concerns and so many more we as the national charity will be part of your support network and help. At Fertility Network UK (www.fertilitynetworkuk.org) we offer a wide range of Groups, Webinars, Helplines and information and more specifically we are here to support workplaces as they move towards a greater understanding and realistic culture for all those facing fertility issues.
Our pledge is that we will be there long after the training session ends for you, for the workplace and for anyone who needs our help.