How to set up a workplace reproductive health network

A webinar this week heard about how to set up an employee network on reproductive health from two people who have done it and discovered an often untapped need for support.

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How can employee networks help those who are going through IVF, have suffered from miscarriage or are going through other reproductive challenges?

A webinar on Monday, entitled Connecting with Colleagues: Creating a reproductive health network, organised by Fertifa’s Workplace Fertility Community, offered practical advice on how to link employees up to provide mutual support and lobby for change.

Hortense Thorpe, Founder of Centrica’s Fertility Group Network, spoke about her experience of IVF and how sharing that led her to realise how many others had gone through a similar experience. She set up the network during Fertility Awareness Week in 2018. She had already been a part of a women’s network and was able to get support from Centrica’s Diversity and Inclusion team who coordinate the networks and helped her to connect the dots. Within weeks hundreds of people were signing up. “It was quite overwhelming,” she said.

She added that finding others to share the running of the group was vital and that a major priority was to find a senior manager with personal experience who could champion the network. She also set up a buddying system and linked up with Fertifa, a fertility benefits provider, who could provide confidential medical and other advice.

From an acorn to a tree

Paul Breach, Co-Chair, Natwest Group’s Fertility & Loss Network, said the organisation’s network had come out of a single intranet post by its co-founder during Baby Loss Awareness Week in 2017 that they were thinking about anyone affected by baby loss. It attracted a flood of comments from colleagues and several shared their own experiences. “A single post acorn has grown a network of tree proportions,” said Paul, who lost his son after 22 days. He added: “It helped to make people feel that they were not alone.” The network now has over 500 active members and has a committee of passionate advocates. The network drew on the existing networks structure within NatWest. Paul added that, since the network members are aware they are not trained counsellors, they have linked up with specialist charities, such as Sands and Held in our hearts.

Both Hortense and Paul said social media was useful to spread the message and to gather feedback. Paul said NatWest had given the network a page on their intranet where they have information and biographies of committee members, each of whom have responsibility for different issues, from fertility to miscarriage. It also has a Facebook-like closed group where people can post. There are events and people can attend anonymously without their camera on. Hortense agreed that confidentiality was important and she had published anonymous blogs by colleagues. She mentioned that it was quite an emotional process hearing about other people’s stories as she was still struggling with depression after being told about her fertility issues. “It is amazing but hard,” she said. “It makes you stronger.”

In addition to events and support, networks can also advise on toolkits for managers to signpost employees to other support and information about reproductive-related policies.

Main tips

Paul and Hortense’s main advice for those considering setting up a network was:

– Get a senior sponsor and link up with specialist HR team members, such as wellbeing teams
– Connect with Employee Assistance Programmes and mental health first aiders
– Use special awareness weeks to spread the message via social media
– Pay attention to confidentiality issues, for instance, run anonymous surveys
– Share the load and prioritise tasks
– In large companies, have regional leads and, if the company is global, local offices who can adapt materials to take account of cultural differences
– Think about providing support for line managers
– In smaller companies without intranets, use noticeboards and have a point of contact people can connect with
– Allow people to join webinars anonymously and don’t make them feel they have to contribute
– Join up with charities who can give expert, trusted support
– Remember sometimes people may just want someone to listen to them
– Publicise the network by getting on town hall meetings, etc, but ensure that people know you are on the agenda so people who are struggling with reproductive issues are prepared, given it is such an emotional subject
– Be sensitive about the name you give the network.

Paul said his experience showed that one post by one person could make a big difference. He added that there was no need to have work-like targets and big events. “The network’s existence and showing that people are not alone is an important thing in itself even without events,” he said.

He stated: “Be brave, take a deep breath and be the person to bring the topic up. Taking a risk is worth it. It is tiring and you need to be kind to yourself, but you will find a lot of good will and gratitude across the board.”

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