Navigating Work And Fertility Treatment
Undergoing fertility treatment can be an incredibly stressful time. Alongside the rollercoaster of emotions that accompanies each cycle, there’s also the associated cost, time, and the devastation if it isn’t successful. Throw in the demands of holding down a full time job, and it’s easy to see why 82% of women have felt as though they’re ‘put on a brave face’ in front of colleagues. Nevertheless, the experience of undergoing fertility treatment while working is a topic that’s rarely discussed or given much consideration by employers - in the UK, employees have no legal right to time off to pursue fertility treatment, and 77% of workplaces have no specific support in place for employees undergoing procedures such as IVF. As part of our #WomensWellnessAtWork campaign, we caught up with three women who’ve undergone IVF whilst working to learn more about their experiences.
Starting the process
Suzanne* is a primary school teacher from Dudley who underwent IVF at the age of 29 after two years of unexplained infertility. “We tried to conceive naturally for a long time,” explained Suzanne. “At the same time, it seemed like all our friends were falling pregnant without even trying. It’s probably the lowest I’ve ever been.” Added to these struggles, Suzanne’s job was stressful. “Being a full-time teacher is very different to how people imagine it,” she said. “It’s no 9-3 job – I’d be getting to work at 7.30am and not leaving till 5pm, before going home to create resources, update records, and write reports. It left little space for me to emotionally process what I was feeling.”
At the time of her struggles with fertility, Mel was 39 and working within recruitment. “We’d been trying to fall pregnant for a year, and we’d also sadly experienced a miscarriage during this time, too,” explained Mel. “Although I was working in a great environment, recruitment can be full-on, and I’m someone who’s always been really driven to succeed. No matter how much I tried to focus my attention on work, the IVF process was always in the back of my mind.”
Luckily for Suzanne, the process was ultimately successful, but it wasn’t an easy road: “Once we started IVF, it was such a relief as it felt like we were getting closer to achieving our dream. However, it’s a long process with lots of appointments, procedures and waiting for results. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anxiety like it,” she remembers.
For Mel, the journey was also difficult: “Our first round was unsuccessful, and we didn’t even get to the egg collection stage. I was devastated and thought that our chance had gone. However, our consultant encouraged us to give it another go, and thankfully we were successful on our second round.”
The challenges of opening up at work
Despite the fact that undergoing IVF can have a huge impact on mental health, surveys have shown that just 15% of people feel able to talk about their experiences with fertility treatment at work. Lucy* is 32-year-old HR manager currently in the process of undergoing IVF, and initially felt reluctant to raise the issue: “Although I did eventually tell my team what was happening, it wasn’t easy. You don’t want to be in the spotlight, and you don’t want all eyes on you if the treatment fails. It’s uncomfortable to feel like you’re different to everyone else, or thinking that people feel sorry for you,” she said. Similarly, Suzanne held off on letting her manager know she was undergoing IVF for as long as possible. “Due to the frequency of my appointments, I eventually had to tell my boss, although I didn’t want to as it felt so personal. I didn’t even want to tell my colleagues, who seemed to almost brag about falling pregnant by accident. Hearing other people announce their pregnancies at work was one of the hardest things for me. I wanted to be happy for them, but at the same time I wondered if it would ever happen for me.” However, Mel was one of the lucky ones whose experience was more positive: “I told my managers at Gleeson about the situation straightaway, and they didn’t let me down. I was given endless flexibility for scans and appointments, without feeling guilty or like I was letting anyone down.”
An increased need for support
Despite our own research revealing that 72% of people feel that workplace policies for individuals undergoing IVF should be mandatory, no specific protections currently exist under UK law. Lucy, however, feels it’s important that organisations allow employees autonomy over how and where they work: “I personally have been much more comfortable working from home during my treatment. It’s important for me to stay relaxed, and I also want to avoid picking up any illnesses. I also just have random days of feeling hormonal where I’m not able to control my impulses as much, so it’s important for me to have space and time for myself. Although there won’t be a ‘one size fits all’ policy, it’s definitely important for employers to understand how they can accommodate individual needs like flexibility.” Mel also believes that more work needs to be done: “Undergoing fertility treatment is an immense pressure, without also having to worry about making time up or getting absences authorised. I also feel mental health support such as counselling is great for helping employees remain as productive and engaged as possible,” she explained.
Suzie Hughes, HR and Operations Director at Gleeson Recruitment Group, agrees that workplace policies surrounding fertility treatment should be standard. “IVF treatment can come with a huge amount of physical, emotional and mental side effects, and no one should bear the burden of all that alone. After an appointment, sometimes an employee might be able to return to work straightaway, other times they may need to recover after anaesthetic or sedation, so that flexibility is vital. Allowing time off per cycle is also highly advised, and something we’ve implemented here at Gleeson – when or if a team member chooses to take that is down to personal discretion. Aside from practical measures, it’s absolutely vital that individuals are able to speak with their HR team in complete confidence to air any concerns they may have and request specific accommodations. If your employer doesn’t have a policy in place, it might be because it’s simply something they’ve never considered, so you could find examples of policies you think would work well and bring these to their attention. Ultimately, nothing should come before your own health and wellbeing, and no one should be forced to choose between that and keeping their job.”
*These names have been changed to protect individual privacy.
Let’s talk about women’s health and bodies in the workplace. Share your experiences and opinions using the hashtag #WomensWellnessAtWork, and let’s get the conversation flowing.