Greater workplace support for fertility patients needed

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Infertility can be emotionally, mentally, physically, and financially draining, and it is estimated that one in seven couples have problems conceiving

While we have clear statutory rights and policies in place when it comes to pregnancy, as well as maternity and paternity leave, this isn’t the case for those who are dealing with fertility issues and treatment.

Pregnancy announcements are openly made in office environments, time off for antenatal classes during working hours has become the norm, and who doesn’t like to gush over grainy scan images at the water cooler?

However, for those who are less fortunate when it comes to baby celebrations and for whom getting that positive pregnancy test is so much harder, the workplace can be very lonely and isolating. Telling the world you can’t have a baby isn’t something anyone really wants to admit to over team drinks.

Putting policies in place might seem like one more job on an ever-increasing to-do list. But as the average age for giving birth gets later and more people turn to IVF, it might be a case of when, rather than if, you have to do this as an employer.

Treatment involves multiple appointments and scans, women need to take medication at certain times, and there will be the chance that things don't work out. If people are given the right support there will be less impact on their performance and therefore less disruption for you.

We meet a significant number of patients who are reluctant to talk to anyone other than us, family members and close friends when they are struggling to having a baby. So telling their manager or co-workers can be extremely daunting and add to the pressure they are already feeling.

We believe that if people (whatever their situation) knew they could talk to their employer openly and without fear of recrimination about what they are dealing with and the support they need, then it could work for all parties involved.

Creating a positive safe environment for employees will foster honesty and trust across the board. With the right planning, structures and policies can be put in place so that people can have the time off they need, without the fear of being judged, pitied or gossiped about for being late again. They will know that on those mornings when they can’t make a meeting someone else will handle things for them, and they can make up the time when they are back in the office, or take part in conference calls from home if the going is getting a bit too tough on the treatment front.

One woman we worked with commented: “It was hard enough telling my parents that I was having IVF treatment, talking to my boss was even harder, but I needed to take time off work and knew that there were only so many excuses I could make before I got into trouble. While my company was really helpful, if there had been something official in my contract from the start so I knew exactly where I stood, that would have made life easier for me and taken away some of the stress I was dealing with.”

Changes don’t happen overnight, but some of the following ideas are easy to introduce and could help make a big difference to someone on your team who is struggling.

An open-door policy and knowing that being able to talk to managers and HR personnel about issues, time off and concerns, without the need to be embarrassed or fear disciplinary action, is key. Training for HR teams and managers to make them aware of the implications fertility issues can have on employees, female and male, is vital and can help everyone concerned. Time off for appointments and flexible working patterns are always appreciated because this can ease the stress, which is something people receiving treatment really do not need.

Have workplace protocols for pregnancy and birth announcements as well as new baby visits. This might seem small and even unnecessary, but these considerations can make a massive difference to the mental health of employees who are either having fertility treatment or coming to terms with infertility.

Suvir Venkataraman is a doctor and general manager at the Harley Street Fertility Clinic

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