How to Support Employees Going Through a Fertility Journey

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Almost three quarters (72%) of respondents in a 2022 survey felt that the topic of fertility was not recognised and valued in their organisation. Despite the issue being common, with 1 in 3 women suffering with a reproductive health issue, conversations around women’s fertility, menopause and menstrual symptoms are still stigmatised in the workplace. This problem isn’t confined to women either – as men struggling with fertility issues often report higher levels of stress and anxiety, impacting their life at work.

The cost of this being overlooked in the workplace is hefty, as up to £4k is lost per employee, per year due to reduced productivity, absenteeism and presenteeism. Because of this, we’ve looked at what HR teams can do to provide meaningful support to employees going through a fertility journey. First though, it’s important we understand what the lives of your people who may be dealing with this challenge looks like:

What can a fertility journey involve?

The emotional and physical impact of fertility treatment can take a significant toll on an individual. Going through the process of trying for a baby is a private and personal one, therefore many find it difficult to discuss their fertility in the workplace, making it more difficult to ask for support.

Despite the complex weight fertility issues can have on someone’s wellbeing, under employment law in the UK there’s currently no legal right to time off work for IVF treatment or related sickness. Only once the final part of the IVF treatment is completed, known as ‘embryo transfer,’ do pregnancy rights come into effect.

The treatment for fertility issues is not limited to, but can include:

  • Weekly hospital appointments
  • Daily injections
  • Ultrasound scans
  • Taking daily medication
  • Egg collection procedure
  • Sperm sample collection
  • Embryo transfer procedures
  • Menstrual cycle tracking

So, what can an organisation do to help?

Flexible Working Patterns

83% of those undergoing a fertility journey reported the pandemic made managing fertility treatment easier.

The privacy and flexibility afforded by remote work allows those on a fertility journey to have slot in their appointments with more ease and have the space to experience the emotional ups and downs that they may not feel able to in an office environment. Creating a culture which embraces flexible working models allows your people to improve their work-life balance, and ensures they have more room to vary they amount of socialisation they may have on days where they are feeling low.

Employee Assistance Programmes

Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP’s), Occupational Health and Private Healthcare schemes are benefit options that may be able to provide additional support, particularly when it comes to addressing the significant impact a fertility journey can have on someone’s mental health.

Your organisation may also want to have a level of paid leave available for treatment as an option to take other than annual leave or unpaid leave, which can add to the financial burden they may already be experiencing, as fertility treatments can be incredibly costly.

Line Manager Training

Line managers are replied upon for the day-to-day observation and support of employee’s lives at work, and with 69.5% of people experiencing fertility issues taking sick leave during treatment, it’s important line managers are able to be sympathetic to those in their team who may be facing these challenges.

Therefore, line managers are generally the first point of contact if someone needs to discuss their health concerns, or access support.

It’s for this reason that HR should make sure line managers are fully informed on the available support within an organisation for people on a fertility journey. This could include ensuring managers are:

  • feeling competent with regard to having compassionate conversations about sensitive and personal issues, like fertility struggles
  • understand what is and isn’t within the realms of their role, and when it’s appropriate to hand a conversation over to HR
  • can access the necessary information at any time, so that when they need to support someone, they are able to access the specific information and guidance at that point in time, instead of straining memory back to a years old workshop
  • are confident to signpost their team members towards expert sources of support such as EAP, external support charities or GP services

It’s important to hold in mind that while the role of managers is to offer support, they cannot be experts in every issue, and so people in need of fertility support should not be left with only their line manager as their only port of call for queries or concerns.

Mental Health Awareness

With no legal right to time off from work coupled with a reluctance to share what is happening with their employer, it is no surprise that 68% of those undergoing fertility treatment felt their mental wellbeing was impacted.

Two areas which businesses should ensure to show the appropriate respect to in order to be considerate of employee mental health are privacy and performance.

Respect for privacy around something so personal and sensitive is crucial. Fertility treatments do not always yield the desired result, and there can be numerous low experiences during the journey which an employee may prefer not to share. While some find comfort in discussing their struggles openly, no employee should ever face an invasion of privacy, or unsolicited advice and questions when it comes to their fertility.

When it comes to an employee’s performance, leadership and management should never make assumptions about someone’s ability to contribute high quality work, nor that someone may not want to progress their career because they are experiencing fertility challenges. Simultaneously, those undergoing fertility treatment can experience a range of health and wellbeing obstacles. Employers need to be understanding and sympathetic towards the fact employee performance could be impacted.

Overall performance management should at its core be a positive process and focus on the support which can be offered to help everyone perform to the best of their ability, including consideration any underlying health and wellbeing issues. An organisation’s performance management system should take a holistic approach with factors such as this in mind. 

Implement a Fertility Policy

42% of respondents in a recent survey had no idea where to turn to find out what support was available in their business with regard to fertility treatment.

This presents a clear opportunity for HR teams to get involved. Designing a fertility policy is an excellent way to outline in writing what support your organisation is able to offer, and how your people can best access it.

You may want to address some of these core issues in your policy:

  • How much time off is available?
  • If paid, where will the cap be?
  • When is absence subject to the usual sickness provisions?
  • Is it sometimes better to agree a temporary flexible working request?
  • What other wellbeing support is on offer?

Where your policy sits and how it is communicated is important too. Simple mistakes such as locating guidance around fertility, IVF or miscarriage within an existing maternity or parental leave policy can be lead to understandably difficult or upsetting experiences for those who are desperately trying to start a family.

Implementing a fertility policy and communicating it effectively ensures that employees can access the support they need without confusion or emotional distress. Supporting employees on their fertility journeys is not just about ensuring compliance with legal requirements but also fostering a compassionate and inclusive workplace where everyone’s well-being is a priority.

By embracing these recommendations, organisations can create a more supportive and inclusive environment, empowering employees as they navigate the complex landscape of fertility challenges. This support not only benefits individuals but also contributes to a more productive and empathetic workplace culture.