Infertility affects around 17.5% of the adult population – around one in six people – according to a new World Health Organisation (WHO) report. For organisations large and small, this means staff in your employment WILL be impacted.
Although women bear the brunt of fertility treatment, reproductive health should not be considered a female issue. The most common reason for couples in the UK to have IVF is because of male factor fertility problems.
Experiencing infertility is devastating. Fertility Network’s research showed a shocking 40% of people feel suicidal; half are depressed. Our male-only research revealed male infertility to be emasculating, with a third of men saying it impacted their working life and 40% saying it affected their mental health.
Impact on work
While over three-quarters of people (77%) do disclose they are having fertility treatment to their employer, it is not all good news. Over a third felt their career was damaged as a result and 15% quit their job or reduced their hours – a loss of talent, experience and diversity which is not good for business.
These statistics are not surprising given the lack of fertility policies or good support available. The majority of UK employees (75%) are not yet supported by a fertility workplace policy and less than half of people who responded to our survey felt they received good support in their struggle to balance work and fertility treatment. Other research has highlighted only a paltry 4% of employers provide appropriate training on fertility treatment for HR directors or line managers.
An understanding employer can make all the difference
Yet an understanding employer can make all the difference. One vital first step is understanding the complex impact of both infertility and its treatment.
That’s why a core part of Fertility Network’s Fertility in the Workplace initiative involves providing tailored support to help staff and managers understand the emotional, physical, financial and social toll infertility can wreak. If employers have the necessary information and confidence, they can then enable staff going through fertility treatment feel supported and happy at work.
Understanding the demands of treatment is also key. IVF is time intensive and time sensitive. Our research found the average person going through an IVF cycle will need between 8-10 flexible working days for appointments, scans, egg collection and embryo transfer. Clinic appointments often overrun or have to be booked at the last minute, meaning workplace flexibility is essential.
Yet there is no legal right to time off work for fertility treatment, and people often end up using their annual leave or taking unpaid leave. However, if a woman is refused leave, it could be regarded as unlawful sexual discrimination. We are also aware of organisations viewing IVF as a lifestyle choice, rather than a medical necessity and for fertility patients to be told their treatment is akin to cosmetic surgery, which can be deeply distressing.
Fertility policies are vital
Having a fertility policy in place is vital for effective support. With a policy in place, employees know immediately what help is available, without having to disclose their infertility or treatment, if they don’t wish to.
Fertility policies can clarify how medical appointments are treated. Some fertility policies offer unlimited leave, while others give a set number of days with the option of additional unpaid leave and flexible working. Some stipulate a designated member of staff to speak to for support and signpost to charities such as Fertility Network.
Those who have adopted such policies say employees have responded very positively and responsibly. They have found it generates good will which helps foster a happy workforce, and this in turn improves productivity and builds good customer relations.
Considering all eventualities
There are many uncertainties associated with fertility struggles and one of the realities is they very often become a long-term issue, covering numerous attempts over years. Workplace support needs to be available not just for the person about to have egg collection ahead of IVF or egg freezing, but for the person who has decided to end treatment and navigate the new terrain of life without children.
Understanding all of these issues is key to designing a fertility friendly workplace in which individuals thrive. Fertility Network UK has a more than 20-year history in improving workplace wellbeing. Today, our pioneering initiative Fertility in the Workplace is expanding as we work with a rapidly growing number of forward-thinking organisations committed to helping their staff. This is heartening to see and gives us hope for the future.