Infertility affects every aspect of your life: physically, emotionally, romantically, financially, socially — professionally. The impact on your career can be enormous.
We suffer in silence
Infertility and miscarriage are so, so common, but so many of us suffer in silence— not even telling friends, let alone work.
We fear we’ll be judged
And given how common it is, how many of the colleagues and managers to whom we’re reluctant to disclose, will actually have direct personal experience of infertility or miscarriage — and will offer support and empathy, rather than judgement?
Fertility Network UK have launched a fantastic initiative to address this issue- Fertility In the Workplace, aiming to provide much-needed and hugely-important support for both employees and employers regarding workplace issues while having fertility treatment.
They asked me to write a blog post sharing my own experience of #FertilityInTheWorkplace - this piece covers not only my own experiences, but shares the experiences of many other women who kindly shared their stories with me to write about this issue.
My experience of Fertility In The Workplace
The multiple rounds of IVF, many, many cancelled cycles and several surgeries I had during my treatment had an enormous impact on my daily life — as a freelancer this presented its own challenges (and benefits).
I work in-house at the companies I work with, as an embedded member of the team — but I’m a contractor, not an employee.
As a freelancer, this gave me cards that I wouldn’t have had as an employee — I was able to set the terms of an engagement up front. When discussing the project I took on before my first cycle, I disclosed that I would be undergoing some medical treatment at some point in the coming months, and that this would require some time out of the office for appointments and procedures. I said I would minimise disruption as far as possible, but that if this was going to be a major problem for them, then it would be best if they looked for someone else to work with — ‘take it or leave it’.
I didn’t have limits on no. of days off (although, also a con — see below)
When combining treatment with in-house work became unsustainable, I didn’t have to work a long notice period — I was able to down-tools much more easily than if I’d been an employee
I did end up disclosing that I was having IVF after the first round, because it was easier to explain why I was having moretreatment and needed moretime off than to come up with an excuse — but this was also made easier because there was less risk. They didn’t employ me so they didn’t need to worry about whether or not I got pregnant.
Being open about what I was going through was such a relief, as I didn’t have to come up with cover up stories for why I was disappearing so often, or worrying about someone seeing syringes in my handbag and thinking I was a junkie, or wondering why I suddenly seemed to resemble a space hopper (thank you bloating, oh the irony that medical treatment needed because you can’t get pregnant causes you to look pregnant when you’re not actually pregnant).
Once I opened up, so, so, so many people revealed that they’d also gone through fertility treatment or experienced miscarriages — which I’d never have known if I hadn’t ‘come out of the closet’ (so to speak)
I found that being open also opened up the opportunity to educate colleagues about IVF: when people make thoughtless comments, it’s usually because they don’t know any better. If someone has never experienced fertility treatment themselves, and we don’t ever talk about it, how can we realistically expect most people to truly understand what we’re going through?
The conspiracy of silence becomes a vicious cycle —we’re reluctant to talk openly about going through infertility treatment because of a (perceived) lack of understanding of the issue — but keeping it secret only reinforces the stigma of infertility as a taboo subject.
In my experience people generally do mean well, and want to be supportive. It’s harder for them to be supportive if they don’t know that we’re going through a difficult time!
I don’t get paid time off. Hours off are easy enough to make up, but days or weeks off? No work, no money.
It can be exhausting to have to be a one-person-teachable-moment machine. However well-intentioned that insensitive comment about how their friend’s sister’s boyfriend’s neighbour’s hairdresser’s cousin had blocked tubes, and her partner had one testicle and a low sperm count, and they were told they’d never have children, and had done 17 cycles of IVF and had 14 miscarriages, and they stopped trying, and went on the adoption list, and went on holiday, and got drunk, and relaxed, and OH MY GOD THEY NOW HAVE MIRACLE QUADRUPLETS (never give up!), it can wear you down.
See also when someone suggests trying acupuncture for the 15th time, and why don’t you just adopt? <sigh> As my husband said to me once, it’s not like people are going to run off and tell their mates ‘Hey guys! GUYS, guess what? Turns out adoption isn’t as easy as I thought, don’t tell your infertile colleague to ‘just adopt’, it’s really not that straightforward’. So sometimes it’s OK to just say ‘That’s great for them, but that’s not relevant to my situation’, or ‘That’s a very personal question, I’d rather not justify my choices right now, thank you.’
I was lucky that my experience of being open about treatment was largely positive, and that being freelance gave me flexibility I probably wouldn’t have been afforded. But that’s not the case for many women.
Real women, real stories
Employers can only offer support if they know that an employee is going through treatment — but employees will continue to be reluctant to disclose unless they know they will be supported.
I’m working on a book project about what it’s really like to experience infertility and / or pregnancy loss, and I’ve received hundreds of contributions from real women sharing their own experiences — many women have shared their own experiences about disclosing at work, and their’s haven’t been so positive:
Managing time off
If I’d been an employee rather than a freelancer, managing the burden of time off for treatment would likely have been significantly harder — as these women described:
Lack of career progression due to staying in a ‘safe’ job
That said, I can absolutely relate to the feeling of stagnation — I took on projects that weren’t necessarily the most fulfilling, because it was impossible to juggle the emotional and physical burden of treatment with something more demanding
Lots of women described staying in unsatisfying roles due to:
not wanting to take on a more challenging role to avoid additional stress
not wanting to take on a more challenging role because of not feeling able to give 100% to the job
not wanting to leave an established role because of having built up trust with a boss or team, affording some leeway on flexible working
not wanting to leave an employer with a favourable IVF or flexible working policy, to facilitate having treatment
not wanting to leave an employer with a favourable maternity package, in the hope of getting pregnant
Impact on performance
I still had significant and frequent crises of confidence - worrying that my mental and physical state meant I just wasn’t performing , something that many women described:
This is a really really tricky one — you don’t want your employer to assume that you’re going to be unreliable, but sometimes you do really really struggle because of everything you’re going through.
However I also think that’s true of many many difficult things in life, and we do bring our whole selves to work — so any emotional trauma in anyone’s lives is going to have an impact.
We’re all human, we’re not robots, and everyone who’s going through a hard time deserves compassion and support.
Getting it right
I honestly don’t know if the companies I worked for had policies regarding fertility treatment — my guess is probably not, based on the conversations I had. However that’s not the case for everyone: shout out to the brilliant bosses and exceptional employers — making a really difficult time that much easier
Remember, happy and well supported employees are productive employees who perform better!
What could employers do better to support employees going through fertility treatment?
Flexibility, Flexibility, Flexibility
Some practical things I think employers could do to better support employees:
Offer flexi-time to allow people to attend appointments
Offer employer-funded counselling
Offer flexible working arrangements where possible, or working from home on days when you are not emotionally able to go into the office but are capable of working
Offer temporary flexible work arrangements — e.g. going down to .8FTE during the two-week wait, or reducing hours during periods of high anxiety (ie first trimester for those that have had miscarriages)
More flexible development and progression opportunitiesthat take into account timing difficulties.
Happy workforce = productive workforce = everybody wins.
For more information please visit Fertility In The Workplace