When women fall pregnant while at work, there are clear guidelines on what they can expect in terms of leave, pay and protection from discrimination. But what if you and your partner happen to be among the 1-in-8 couples who struggle to conceive?

I was recently contacted by a woman who had been referred for IVF treatment. IVF is time-consuming, as well as physically and emotionally draining, involving a variety of tests, daily injections and multiple ultrasound scans, on top of invasive egg collection and transfer.

She was desperately worried about her rights to leave and pay while undergoing treatment. With infertility still a taboo subject, she had also (up until this point) hidden her situation from her employer for fear of her career being negatively affected.

And sadly, her concerns are not unfounded. Despite infertility being defined as a “disease of the reproductive system” by the World Health Organization, there is no specific statutory protection for employees to take time off for IVF, leaving many resorting to taking annual leave, unpaid leave or even handing in their notice to cope with the physical and mental rigours of the investigations and treatment.

It is only when an embryo has been transferred and following a positive pregnancy test that the law kicks in, when a woman becomes protected from maternity discrimination under the Equality Act 2010. Women who feel they have been treated unfavourably because of fertility treatment may file a sex discrimination claim, but as yet there is no record of anyone doing so.

Time for change

We all know the benefits of creating organisations that celebrate diversity, and especially empower women in the workplace. Shouldn’t businesses, therefore, be prepared to support them through fertility challenged, as well as pregnancy and parenting, so they can continue to feel valued and fulfil their potential?

According to a survey conducted by LinkedIn and Censuswide of 4,000 UK employees last year, roughly 1,000 had experienced fertility problems. Of these, 51% said they had needed to take time off work for medical reasons, but just two in five of that group said they had felt supported by their managers.

The survey also polled 1,000 HR professionals with the vast majority (91%) saying they would benefit from education to better understand employee fertility issues.

Such headline-grabbing figures and social media campaigns, including the recently launched #FertilityAtWork movement on Instagram (where women undergoing fertility treatment share their workplace experiences), have started a ball rolling that can only continue to gain momentum.

So, what can I do?

Here are some steps you can take to ensure your workplace keeps apace.

Implement a fertility policy

Forward-thinking companies are beginning to formalise policies that outline the time off allowed for fertility treatment, for both women and men – the latter will also need time away for treatment and to be emotional support for their partner who will go through much more invasive procedures.

Some organisations offer unlimited leave, while others provide a set number of days with options for additional unpaid leave or flexible working. According to Fertility Network UK, those who have adopted such policies say employees have responded “positively and responsibly”, and that they generate goodwill, which helps to foster happy and productive employees.

Provide safe spaces

During the working day, women receiving treatment may need to administer injections, which also typically need refrigeration, or to insert pessaries that may require her to lie down for up to 30 minutes. Can you offer a space and breaks in the day to help reduce the stress of having to carry this out at work?

Be a champion of wellbeing

Research has shown that the psychological stress endured by couples facing infertility is akin to coping with cancer, yet it’s a subject many find difficult to talk about, especially at work.

Creating wellbeing champions or mentors – impartial employees who people can turn to if they’re struggling with their mental health at work – may provide the outlet those receiving treatment need to help them through a day.

Be human

Without legal protection or a fertility policy, the decision for how much time away from work a person receives lies on the shoulders of individual managers. Remember, it may have taken a lot of courage for your team member to have told you their problems, so listen well, be empathetic and be fair.

Want to find out how you can support members of your workforce going through fertility treatment? At Tell Jane, our experienced HR practitioners can help you review existing policies or put new strategies in place to lay the foundations of a supportive workplace culture. Contact me directly by emailing lisa@telljane.co.uk to find out more.



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