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Employers who understand the challenges people going through IVF face can greatly reduce their stress, according to those who have experienced it.
A recent report published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Obstetrics & Gynecology found that the majority of people undergoing IVF are using annual leave and sick leave to cover the time they need off for treatment.
It highlighted that there are currently no statutory entitlements to absence or flexible working during the long, physically and psychologically demanding process of treatment and the research highlighted that even for those employers who have policies relating to IVF, these vary greatly.
The research, conducted by researchers at Middlesex University in collaboration with Fertility Network UK, found that the average number of days of absence during a treatment cycle was nine, but that 50% of participants took more days than this, with some taking more than a month.
Only 23% said their workplace had specific policy relating to treatment and those with no policy experienced greater levels of distress related to treatment.
Frankie Hockham knows the impact of this first hand. She has had two experiences of IVF on the NHS. The first was very difficult, partly, she says, because she didn’t know what to expect. That made it hard to explain to her manager what she needed in terms of support – or how she would feel.
Her employer had never had anyone go through IVF or even go on maternity leave. To complicate matters further Frankie’s problems with conceiving were due to her having polycystic ovaries and endometriosis which meant her periods were irregular. IVF is based around women’s cycles so it was hard to predict when she would need to be at appointments and therefore difficult for her manager to plan. She also had a difficult commute between her clinic and work which added to her stress. “I spent more time stressing than focusing on myself,” she says.
She recalls having to use annual leave and sick leave to deal with the nausea she suffered as a result of the hormone treatment. “I really suffered with sickness. Some days I could not function,” says Frankie. The only reason she told her employer what was going on was because she was suffering so badly that people were asking if she was pregnant, something that really upset her. Her manager put a policy in place, but it was only for an extra three days leave and that got used up very quickly.
When she went through the embryo transfer process she was signed off sick by her GP because she was not coping. She knew at the time that that decision could be career-limiting. When the process failed she says she was an emotional wreck and felt she could not return to work. “Everyone would know me as the person who it did not work for,” she says.
She moved on and thought that was it, but within six months and in a new job she and her partner decided to try again. This time round she had a better idea of what to expect and what she needed and she was open with her employer from day one. Her employer offered her flexible working, particularly homeworking and flexi hours. “From day one they were brilliant,” she says. She did not have to use her annual leave for appointments and sickness and was able to make up her hours at other times. This flexibility was partly due to there being more staff able to cover. The second round was temporarily successful and Frankie says the support she received at work played a big part, meaning she felt less stressed. “I had felt a burden in my previous job,” she says. Colleagues were wonderful. One used to put ginger biscuits on her desk in the morning to help her with the sickness. “Those small things really matter,” she says.
Just before she was due to go for her first scan and after telling people she was pregnant, Frankie had a miscarriage. Her boss was very understanding and asked what he could do to help. He told her colleagues, but not on a group email which she would have seen and which would have upset her further. People knew that she didn’t want to talk about it for the first few months. She says work was a good distraction from what she was going through, but she felt she could not stay in post. She wanted to start again somewhere new where people did not know what she had been through.
Frankie is keen to help support others going through the process and to advocate for greater understanding, including from employers. She now volunteers for the Fertility Network UK, helping those going through the process to know what to expect. She is keen too to educate people generally about IVF and says there are lots of myths around, for instance, that it involves just one appointment rather than a long process, starting with having to take fertility drugs for a year, sometimes with horrible side effects. Frankie’s dosage was increased at one point and she went from not ovulating to over-ovulating. That is before you even start IVF. The hormones associated with the treatment cause intense mood swings as well as sickness and the emotional ups and downs are immense.
When it comes to employers Frankie says greater understanding is vital. Flexibility is key as it makes the whole process much less stressful. She adds that managers also need support as it is difficult to plan around absence and to know how to support the employee best.
Two years on Frankie is now head of fundraising at a charity and runs a charity in her spare time with her partner, teaching children about astronomy. She does the marketing, fundraising and administrative side of the charity while her partner, a firefighter, does the talks. Their car is full of telescopes and they travel all around the county speaking to children and getting them to look up to the stars.
Frankie says the whole process has been hard not just on her, but on her partner and agrees that partners often get forgotten in the process. “My partner still has moments,” she says. “It’s hard for him as there is nothing he can do to make it better,” she says, adding that she told him she would understand if he left her. He said he would rather have Frankie on her own than someone else with kids. The charity work helps, says Frankie. “It is his way to inspire children.”
She herself still gets upset thinking about what she has been through. There are particular triggers such as Christmas, colleagues or friends announcing their pregnancy and feeling guilty doing so – one colleague apologised to her – and so on. She decided to unfreeze her remaining embryos so there was no way to keep going back for treatment. She says she knows she would have done so as she is a very determined person and thinks it would have destroyed her.
“It is a very painful thing and the process can be very lonely. Some people are torn apart by it; couples split up,” she says. “ I am a lot stronger than I was, but I still get very upset. That is why I think it is important to do anything I can to help others not to feel how I did.”