An increasing number of organisations offer support for employees who suffer miscarriage and parental policies have evolved considerably in recent years. But what about helping staff through infertility? Fiona Skinner examines how supporting employees’ efforts to conceive could be the next key area in inclusion.
In the age of inclusivity, infertility remains a hidden source of workplace exclusion which poses both ethical and legal challenges to all workforces. It affects one in eight men and women in couples in the UK, and is rising dramatically.
There has been a substantial rise in the uptake of fertility treatments in recent years, too, including tenfold increases in IVF rates, 523% in egg/embryo storage according to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, and 350% in surrogacy, from data obtained by Brilliant Beginnings from the Child and Family Court Advisory and Support Service.
To quote Sasha Ottey, executive director at PCOS Challenge: The National Polycystic Ovary Syndrome Association, it “impacts people regardless of race, ethnicity, geographic location, or the size of their bank account”.
Nevertheless, a survey by The Fertility Network reported that 50% of employees do not disclose their treatment plans to their employers as they fear they wouldn’t take them seriously.
This was my story. As an ex-marketing executive at a global advertising company, I remember vividly the relief when I finally took the step of sharing my fertility journey with my managing director – I was fortunate to have my boss’s support. I stayed with the company, but I later learned that my experience was atypical.
For many, the simple idea of disclosing harrowing details of their infertility experience to their (potentially different gendered) boss has the potential to leave them feeling vulnerable and possibly humiliated.
As Carolynn Dubé from Fertility Matters says: “Infertility takes people into the bedroom”, which can make managers feel uncomfortable. Fertility Network UK notes that 40% don’t disclose as they fear the negative impact on their career, so are left to suffer in silence.
Fertility journeys are brutal. Some of the more aggressive treatment plans involve blood tests three times a day, at the shortest of notice. The disruption, complex medication protocol and hormone overload are hard to put into words. I found myself self-administering injections whilst suffering the effects of hormone imbalance.
It’s no surprise that a survey by Fertility Network UK looking at the impact of fertility treatment found 90% reported feeling depressed, while 42% experienced suicidal feelings. Can employers really ignore this situation any longer?
There is no such thing as a ‘normal’ family anymore, with markets opening for surrogacy abroad, single sex couples and solo motherhood.”
A positive and inclusive working culture needs to provide a flexible, safe working environment for all employees going through fertility treatment – from IVF through to surrogacy – they all have challenging emotional journeys – for the individual, their partners and support network.
Employers need to take the lead, fostering an inclusive culture that challenges the stigma of infertility and proactively invites employees to open up about the practical and psychological support they need.
Opening up the conversation
I work as a fertility coach, working with HR and business leaders to facilitate the infertility discussion and brands are starting to talk.
The recent conversations around menopause are heartening but inclusivity demands we take care not to forget the younger population demographic. The pandemic has forced women of all ages to confront their fertility window.
Moreover, there is no such thing as a “normal” family anymore, with markets opening for surrogacy abroad, single sex couples and solo motherhood – there are many ways to create a family and the world is changing fast.
The important fallout from this is that HR managers and corporate environments face ever steeper learning curves, as each fertility journey is unique to the individuals concerned.
Nine out of 10 employees with fertility issues say they would be willing to change jobs for better fertility benefits, according to a US survey from the Reproductive Medicine Associates of New Jersey.
Often, the key challenge for HR teams when creating inclusive policies is a lack of information and understanding about the complex and hugely diverse fertility journeys their staff may be undergoing.
As one managing director said: “We need real guidance in this area, otherwise our line managers are exposed as they don’t have the tools or resources to effectively support their staff and we don’t want to lose great talent or risk any legal action.”
The larger fertility benefit providers are often significant investments especially for smaller employers, and may not have the experience in the less “typical” fertility journeys such as surrogacy, egg freezing, egg donation to fully support the journeys of a diverse workforce.
Fertility coaches are now in demand to help close the “knowledge and empathy” gap between line managers and their staff to help foster the right environment of inclusion so employees can thrive in their careers whilst achieving their family goals.
However, the desire needs to be there to drive change and all too often, fertility is the last item on the management agenda for inclusivity.
There are some companies making great strides in supporting employees’ fertility journeys: Bank of America, for example, offers unlimited fertility coverage; Pinterest’s fertility benefits extend to surrogacy and egg freezing; and NatWest Group has recently been recognised for its fertility employee-led network.
However, as a first step, it would be great to see more corporates using experts in this space to develop policies with real fertility benefits that are accessible and relevant. A medication room for individuals going through fertility treatment is a great initiative.
I would offer four key pieces of advice in supporting fertility as part of an inclusive culture.
Firstly, education is key, line managers feel uncomfortable starting a discussion about fertility unless invited. They need the tools, support, and language to handle this appropriately and policies to back them up.
Education from fertility coaches, such as webinars, videos, guides, and talks all help facilitate this culture of openness and understanding that fertility has different implications across different communities and cultures. Without the right sensitivities, this journey can be even more isolating.
Providing employees with network contacts and support points all play an important role. Our fertility coaching company has, for example, developed a CPD fertility awareness course for companies to help line managers support employees and we anticipate many corporates will be reaching out for similar support tools.
Consider the impact of baby showers, pregnancy announcements and language used in the office. It’s about being mindful and considerate when one employee’s joy can signal other’s despair.”
Secondly, it’s about creating a “safe, calm and hygienic” environment for anyone going through fertility treatment. Injecting in a communal toilet isn’t pleasant for anyone.
One well-known brand has developed “wellbeing” pods where pregnant and women going through treatment could go to listen to classical music and take time out to support their self-care. More initiatives like this would be very welcome.
Thirdly, consider the impact of baby showers, pregnancy announcements and language used in the office. It’s about being mindful and considerate when one employee’s joy can signal other’s despair.
Finally, leverage employee support networks, empowering employees to create meaningful content and shape the discussion. If the right platform prevents one person from feeling depressed or suicidal it must be worth the investment.
Mentors, fertility buddies and supporting key fertility events such as Fertility Week, International Women’s Week and Men’s Health Week, all give a positive message that a company is committed to creating positive change and will help attract the best talent out there and nurture key staff in their journeys.
Employers are at an important crossroads when it comes to addressing the infertility challenge. The time is now for us all to work together to ensure that workplaces are properly inclusive in every sense of the term.