Raising fertility awareness in the workplace

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It’s estimated that one in seven couples in the UK has difficulty conceiving naturally, but fertility issues don’t just affect heterosexual couples. Egg freezing and IVF with donor sperm are available for single women and lesbian couples, and surrogacy is an option for gay men too. ‘Secondary’ infertility can also affect those who already have children naturally. Some people suffer from recurrent miscarriages. Add all of this into the mix, and it’s likely that a significant proportion of the workforce will be affected by fertility issues at some point, whether directly or indirectly.

Infertility has many causes. But what seems common to everyone going through any kind of fertility process, is the detrimental impact the treatment can have, physically, mentally and financially.

Physically, the process can be gruelling, largely due to the drugs taken by women during the process. Side effects can include nausea, extreme fatigue, dizziness, stomach upset, hot flushes, bloating and headaches. Drugs need to be injected at the same time each day, sometimes more than once a day, which can prove difficult to manage with the demands of work and life in general.

Infertility also has a huge mental impact, which is often overlooked. Research published by Fertility Network UK shows that stress, anxiety and depression are common in people suffering from fertility issues – as are feelings of isolation, inadequacy, feeling out of control and low concentration. A small percentage of people suffering from infertility also experience suicidal thoughts.

For those not eligible for or able to conceive through limited NHS funded treatment, the financial cost of private treatment can also be crippling, if not completely prohibitive. This can add a lot of stress to an already difficult situation.

The Fertility Network research showed that participants in the research were almost equally as worried about the impact of their treatment on work, and physically getting to appointments, as they were about the funding of treatment and potential reactions to the drugs. This clearly demonstrates that how employers treat employees going through fertility treatment can play a key role in making the process less stressful for employees.

One key step that employers can take to reduce stress for employees suffering from infertility is to have an infertility or IVF policy in place. Given that there is no statutory right to take time off  to undergo fertility treatment, it’s especially important that both male and female employees know where they stand when it comes to taking time to attend appointments. Questions which can be addressed through a policy include:

  • Should fertility appointments be treated like any other medical appointment?
  • How much time can employees take off for specific stages of treatment and after treatment, and will that time be paid or unpaid?
  • Can any additional time be taken as holiday or unpaid leave?
  • Can employees work from home at certain points in their treatment if this would make them feel more comfortable or make administering medication at the right time of day less stressful?
  • Will employees who work shifts be able to change their shifts if necessary or take breaks at specific times to ensure they can administer injections at the right time?
  • Can employees access an employee support helpline or face to face counselling for emotional support?
  • Do any private medical packages provided allow employees to recover costs for alternative complementary treatments such as acupuncture?

Having this information at hand will give employees a clear understanding of how they need to manage their treatment in conjunction with work, and what help is available to them through work.

Aside from the practicalities, one of the most important messages you can give to employees is that you recognise that infertility is a medical condition rather than something elective, and that within reason, you will support them whilst they are receiving treatment. You can start this process though your policy. Then, you should ensure that your HR team and managers put this into practice, through both their communications with employees and management of time off for treatment.

How we can help

If you would like more information on how to manage fertility issues at work, please contact Sarah Austin at s.austin@capitallaw.co.uk.

To find out more about workplace issues, why not join us on our next Understanding the Human in HR event? Each session includes a talk by a key-note speaker, leading into a thought-provoking discussion with input from our employment lawyers. It provides plenty of opportunity for delegate interaction and participation, and importantly, a delicious selection of cheese and wine for you to enjoy. 

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