Fertility and reproductive health in the workplace can be a taboo subject. A recent conference heard how employers can help make things easier for employees going through fertility treatment.
With much stigma still attached to reproductive issues, how can employers support those going through fertility treatment better?
A Workplace Fertility Support conference earlier this week, chaired by Hema Wara, Fertility Advocate and Product Director at fertility benefits provider Fertifa, brought together several people who have been through fertility treatment to talk about their experiences and how support at work made a difference. Wara described how she used to work in HR and had gone through eight rounds of IVF and suffered four miscarriages. She left her job last year as a result of mental health issues linked to her fertility situation. “I could not do a very stressful job and handle my fertility situation,” she said. She hasn’t looked back and focuses now on helping other people.
Helen Burgess, Employment Law Partner at Shoosmiths, described how she began IVF treatment around three years ago. Her partner and her were working in demanding, full-time jobs. She described the draining process of doing IVF and how it occupied most of her working hours. As she was relatively senior in her firm, she had a lot of autonomy which made attending scans and other appointments easier, but she says she still felt a lot of pressure to keep going at 110mph. She came to a point one day after passing out following an invasive procedure and still managing to host a working lunch when she realised she needed to take a step back in her job. She spoke to a work coach who told her it was okay to have a life outside work. “That was very welcome,” said Helen. “It gave me permission to focus on trying to have a family.”
Bruce Eaton, Director at Health Pulse Services, spoke of going through the IVF process with his wife 13 years ago. He said there came a point at work where he needed to tell his managers and get support. He recalled, for instance, sitting in a car park while his wife was due to have a procedure and taking a work call about budgets. He says work was understanding and gave him autonomy and flexibility, but he says he still felt pressure to carry on as normal when his wife’s cycle failed which he said felt like a bereavement. He encouraged people to speak out about their experiences so people understood more about the fertility process.
Hortense Thorpe, Procurement Business Partner and founder of the Fertility Group at Centrica, spoke about how she had had multiple surgeries before IVF which were painful and mentally draining. She had been through three cycles of IVF and said having a supportive manager had removed a lot of stress. “My manager trusted me to do a good job, but not to do it at 150% so I could focus on the IVF. As a result, I never performed better,” she said. She won awards while going through IVF cycles and bereavement when they failed. Flexible working had enabled her to work around her appointments.
Helen Beedham, a writer and speaker on professional careers and corporate work cultures and fertility ambassador, spoke of how she had to go private for IVF treatment because she had step children. Her first attempt failed, but she now has a nine-year-old daughter. “It has been a huge rollercoaster,” she said. “There needs to be a lot more conversation about it in the workplace.”
The speakers spoke about the double-edged sword of being open about having fertility treatment at work. There might be jokes or jibes; telling people might limit your career prospects. Even if you only told a few people, you couldn’t guarantee confidentiality, said Burgess, and if your cycle failed you had to process that and then relive the bereavement by telling people in the office.
It was agreed that a supportive line manager who could maintain confidentiality was vital and telling them made it easier to take the necessary time off for procedures and recovery. Some companies had IVF leave, but it needed to be flexible, anonymous and adequate to cover what was needed in each individual case.
Thorpe spoke of how she had created a closed, online network at Centrica to help others like her. “I feel it is my duty to listen to people’s stories and share with senior leaders how any gaps in support might be closed,” she said.
Several speakers said it was important to be open and speak about their experiences. Eaton added: “If people talk about it it won’t be career limiting and we will help to create an environment that makes people feel safe.”