Implementing a supportive workplace fertility policy is good for business and employees, yet nearly two thirds of firms in the UK do not have such a policy to support employees going through fertility treatment, according to Fertility Network UK research. Why is this?
The demand for workplace fertility support is there. The number of people using IVF or ICSI (intracytoplasmic sperm injection) to try to become parents is on the increase, rising about 4 per cent annually. Approaching 68,000 fertility treatment cycles are carried out every year in the UK and one in six couples, 3.5 million people, are affected.
That’s someone in most workforces, although many employees do not disclose their situation to their employer, for fear of their career being affected negatively. IVF and infertility remain taboo at work.
Workplace fertility policies can help ease experience for employees
Although human resources professionals are equipped to tackle many personal issues, understanding the far-reaching impact of fertility problems is often outside their skillset. Experiencing infertility is deeply traumatic for women and men. Fertility Network UK research shows infertility often triggers a life crisis with 90 per cent of people feeling depressed and 42 per cent feeling suicidal.
Employers often have a general lack of understanding of the process of fertility treatment. Having IVF is time consuming and time sensitive with multiple appointments at often distant clinics. There is a need for flexibility because unavoidable last-minute adjustments to appointments are often required. Women and men having fertility treatment therefore experience considerable conflict between the demands of work and the time and emotional demands of treatment.
Women typically require around six to eight flexible days, this includes appointments for a variety of tests, egg collection and transfer, multiple ultrasound scans and consultations. Men need to attend for tests and sample collection, but should ideally be there to support their partner for more invasive procedures.
During a working day, women need to inject fertility drugs typically requiring refrigeration or up to three times a day insert progesterone pessaries, which come with instructions to lie down for 30 minutes after insertion. How many firms are set up to facilitate this?
Supporting employees with fertility issues is good for everyone
Employers may not realise infertility is an illness, as defined by the World Health Organization, and that fertility treatment is not a choice; it is the recommended medical treatment for a recognised disease. However, in the UK, pre-conception care is not a statutory right, so employees do not have a right to absences for fertility treatment or the right to request flexible working, like they do for pre-natal and post-natal care.
Consequently, when businesses do not have a workplace fertility policy, employees resort to using annual leave, unpaid leave, working part-time or ending their employment to accommodate IVF appointments. Fertility Network UK’s research shows one in five people had to reduce their work hours or quit their job during treatment. Good staff may leave an unsupportive employer, and the firm then has to face the costs of recruiting and training a replacement.
Workplace fertility support can make all the difference in managing this highly stressful juggling act while experiencing treatment and after failed treatment as IVF fails 75 per cent of the time. Staff who did not receive employer support reported higher levels of distress and more frequent suicidal feelings, and took more time off work.
Forward-thinking employers recognise that implementing a supportive workplace fertility policy is good for business, resulting in a more engaged workforce, improved productivity and enhanced business outcomes. With fertility problems rising, this is not an issue that is going to disappear.
Workplaces need to be proactive now and ensure employees facing fertility issues are supported, and treated empathetically and fairly. The dividends for business will be high.