How a London lawyer became her firm’s workplace fertility officer

Solicitor Natalie Sutherland has created a role where she can support staff members who are managing issues such as IVF, egg-freezing, and baby loss.

Natalie Sutherland

 

Natalie Sutherland’s days involve the typical tasks of a busy solicitor – meetings with clients and barristers, court hearings, and wading through big bundles of legal papers. But, since last December, she has also had a more unusual role.

Sutherland is her firm’s fertility officer. In this role, she can support employees who are going through issues such as IVF, egg-freezing, or pregnancy loss. “A fertility officer is [someone] who…staff can come to, to seek advice, to talk about their work and how that might be managed,” says Sutherland, who is a partner at Burgess Mee, a family law firm in London. 

“[It] is a signal to our employees that we care about the fact that you want to have a career and a family, and we want to create this open environment at work, so that you don’t feel the need to keep it secret.”

Fertility issues are often considered a taboo, despite being common. Around 1 in 7 couples may have difficulty conceiving, according to the NHS. Both fertility issues and fertility treatments can be emotionally and physically draining, with processes that involve multiple medical appointments.

For many people, managing this alongside work is a huge burden. Over a third (38%) of men and women said they had either left or seriously considered leaving their job while going through fertility issues, according to a survey last year by Fertifa and Fertility Network UK. In addition, 60% of people were not honest with their employer about the time they had to take off for appointments – people undergoing treatments such as IVF often quietly take sick leave or even annual leave, because they are afraid of asking for time away from work.

How can a workplace fertility officer help?

As a fertility officer, Sutherland can help with practical matters, such as rearranging work diaries for medical appointments and finding staff to cover meetings. She can do this without disclosing to anyone why such diary reshuffles are needed, if the person she is supporting prefers that. She can also provide a listening ear, set up peer-support groups amongst employees, and signpost people to charities. Since Sutherland created the role six months ago, she has supported staff going through a range of fertility issues. 

Burgess Mee is thought to be one of the first UK employers to have a fertility officer. Sutherland was inspired to set up the role after her own experience of miscarriage and secondary infertility, which took place when she was on a career break and looking after her daughter. She has so far used her own lived experience and many meetings with fertility experts to guide her in her role, and she will soon also undertake formal training with the organisation Fertility Matters at Work.

Sutherland says that, as well as the tangible support that she can provide, the mere existence of her role sends a powerful signal to staff. “I think the most important aspect of a fertility officer is actually having it. Actually having someone there, to signal that we’ve thought about this,” she says. “It’s already helped staff in our firm and I’m super-proud of it.”

A rising number of employers are launching fertility policies

The taboo around fertility issues has started to ease in recent years, especially as globally famous figures such as Michelle Obama, Beyoncé, and Cristiano Ronaldo have spoken publicly about their experiences of pregnancy loss and IVF. 

Some employers have launched fertility policies, which provide staff with paid leave or even financial support for treatments. For example, the banking group NatWest and the energy company Centrica subsidise some treatments for staff and run employee support networks about fertility. The accountancy firm PwC announced last year that it would offer eight days paid leave for staff undergoing treatments and two days paid leave for staff whose partners were undergoing treatments. 

Companies such as Channel 4, the digital bank Monzo, and the supermarket Co-op, have also introduced pregnancy loss policies that offer employees paid time off if they lose a baby at any stage of a pregnancy.

However, these employers are still in the minority. Almost three-quarters (72%) of people say their workplace does not have a fertility policy, according to a 2020 survey by Fertility Matters at Work.

Fertility survey graphic

Campaigning for a national change

Nickie Aiken, a Conservative MP, has recently launched a campaign to change national laws so that all workplaces give better support to women undergoing IVF. Aiken is due to introduce a Private Members Bill to parliament this month, which proposes that all women should have a legal right to time off for fertility appointments, just as pregnant women have for antenatal appointments. 

Sutherland has been working with Aiken on this campaign and has been asked to feed into the draft of the bill. She says a legal change would address the current “lottery” system as to whether your employer happens to be supportive.

“It’s massively ambitious but it’s amazing – if the law could change, what a legacy,” she says. “It would be amazing to be involved in that.”



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