Around 3.5 million men and women across the UK are affected by infertility, which can have a devastating impact on people’s lives - with 90% of people reporting feelings of depression.
Despite this, though, employees going through fertility issues or fertility treatment are not getting the support they need from their work.
In a recent poll of 4,000 UK employees, of the roughly 1,000 who experienced fertility problems, 51% said they needed to take time off work for medical reasons. However, just two in five of that group (43%) said they felt supported by their managers.
While some feel too embarrassed or ashamed to talk about it, others are reluctant to speak to their employers because they fear doing so will detrimentally affect their career.
“Infertility is an illness, it’s not visible and often kept secret but it can be life-altering for an individual,” says Becky Kearns, a HR professional and media volunteer for Fertility Network UK who has been through many cycles of IVF while at work.
“I even questioned my whole purpose in life if I couldn’t be a Mum,” she adds. “Trying to process something as huge as this can be incredibly difficult and impactful in other aspects of life – particularly at work.”
As well as the enormity of the emotions involved, there is also a real stigma surrounding infertility which leaves many feeling like they have to suffer in silence.
“We don’t tell anyone as we fear we are the only ones going through it, we fear others won’t understand our feelings, we don't see it recognised within a policy,” says Kearns. “In the workplace we fear that we may be discriminated against for openly admitting we want to have children, which consequently results in time away from the workplace.
“The frequent and often unpredictable appointments which makes planning impossible, the physical effects of hormones being pumped into the body, the feeling of having absolutely no control, all compounded like we're the only ones, unsure of what support - if any - will be given by an employer,” she adds.
Fertility issues can exact an enormous toll on mental health too, with research showing they can lead to feelings of guilt, stress and tension, as well as anxiety and depression. Fertility treatment can be overwhelming, all-consuming and invasive, too - leaving women exhausted and fragile.
“The emotional impact of infertility cannot be underestimated, and going through tests and treatment is often a deeply traumatic process,” says Gwenda Burns, chief executive of Fertility Network UK.
In a study of 865 people with infertility in 2016, 72% disclosed to their employer but only 41% received a great deal of support and 49% received a bit of support.
“Those who disclosed their fertility issues to their employer received more days off as a result and those who received more employer support reported lower levels of distress,” Burns says.
“The decision to tell your employer you are having fertility struggles is a personal and difficult one but having someone to talk to either within or outside your workplace can go a long way to ease the stress and loneliness that people in this situation often feel.”
When Berenice Smith went through six rounds of IVF, she was expected to schedule her time off - but as she found out, people respond differently to medication and there’s no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to dates.
“If employers and HR teams take time to familiarise themselves with treatment, this can really help with conversations and understand what is maybe required,” she says. “Enabling people to have time off, offering working at home options or flexible hours can be good for staff retention and welfare.”
Kearns advises having a dedicated policy in place or an explicit mention of fertility treatment within an existing policy allows people to know what they’re going through is recognised. Crucially, it may also open up confidential dialogues between staff and managers - meaning employees won’t feel the need to keep their struggles to themselves.
When it comes to fertility policies, there are several factors which need to be considered, including a summary of what might be typically involved in IVF treatment. This is a way to raise awareness with managers about the reality of scan appointments and recovery time from invasive medical procedures.
Flexible working, guidance on paid and unpaid leave and a recognition of the impact it can have on physical and mental health is also crucial too.
“Employees are only ‘protected’ by maternity legislation once they have had an embryo transferred, and so often employees can feel particularly vulnerable throughout fertility treatment,” Kearns says. “Workplaces will need to consider what is reasonable, but by giving employees an idea of what might be provided they can go a long way in removing the stress of the unknown.”