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Greater Support for Fertility Patients is Needed in the Workplace


By Dr Suvir Venkataraman, BEng (Hons), PhD

Infertility can be emotionally, mentally, physically, and financially draining, and when it comes to fertility in the workplace, it’s a pretty grey area.

While we have clear statutory rights and policies in place for employees in the UK 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, and it is a situation we believe needs to change.

Pregnancy announcements are openly made in office environments, time off for those exciting antenatal classes during working hours have become the norm, and who doesn’t like to gush over those grainy scan images at the water cooler and try to work out if it is a girl or boy?

However, 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 a very lonely, isolating place, and telling the world you can’t have a baby isn’t something anyone really wants to admit to over team drinks on a Friday night.

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 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.

The reality is that treatment does involve multiple appointments and scans, women do need to take medication at certain times and there will be the chance that things might not work out, but 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.

This isn’t just something that can impact heterosexual couples, but also same-sex couples and single people wanting a family.

Furthermore, the burden of undergoing treatment for women who choose to freeze their eggs can be daunting. There are of course multiple reasons someone may choose to freeze their eggs: it could be for social reasons, prior to undergoing treatment for cancer (where there are of course a whole host of other factors to consider) or ahead of a gender change process.

We believe that if people, whatever their situation, knew they could talk to their employer openly, without fear of recrimination, about what they are dealing with and the support they need, 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 or worse, 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.

We accept there is work to be done in this area and changes don’t happen overnight, but we have some ways you 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 really 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 and find such news hard to take even if they are pleased for the parents to be.

We hope that in time, fertility at work will be acknowledged more widely and all companies will have the appropriate plans in place to ensure people no longer feel ashamed, alone or upset when they are at work.

Dr Suvir Venkataraman, BEng (Hons), PhDGeneral Manager, Harley Street Fertility Clinic

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