Fertility in the Workplace: Is there enough support?

With day 2 of National Fertility Week comes the talk of Fertility in the Workplace, a topic that isn’t widely discussed. Fertility in the Workplace is something that is practically a non-existent topic, and when 1 in 8 of us suffer with infertility, this is something that baffles me constantly.

When you first begin trying to conceive, it isn’t necessarily all sunshine and roses. If it is, then that’s just wonderful. You fall pregnant, you’re allowed time for antenatal care and are entitled to your normal rate of pay for this. The employer is to carry out a form of risk assessment, assessing risks such as heavy lifting, carrying, sitting or standing for long periods of time without a satisfactory break, exposure to toxic substances or long working hours. If they can’t remove the risks, you can be suspended with full pay, and support is provided throughout the pregnancy.

However, how many workplaces actually have policies in place for those going through IVF? How many put provisions in place to help assist a person going through IVF? Is there consideration for the fact the patient is injecting themselves every day, taking certain medications and undergoing specific procedures, requiring them to ‘take it easy?’.

A study by Harvard University into shift work and IVF showed that women who worked shifts generally had less eggs collected during their IVF cycle, and the eggs that were collected were lower quality than those who worked regular hours. This was particularly damaging for women who switched between daytime working hours and nighttime working hours due to a “disruption in circadian rhythm that’s affecting normal hormone production and menstrual cycling” (Dr Gaskins, talking to the Independent).

Reading this study is particularly frightening, should I say, for someone like myself who works shifts around the clock. Some days I am awake at 4am, other days I’m finishing work at 6am.

When I started my fertility investigations, I kept my workplace very much in the dark. I didn’t feel the need to share the fact I might be put on Chlomid, I might be okay or my husband might have a low sperm count. At a point of uncertainty, though my stress levels were high, it hadn’t impacted my work and I had no reason to feel I needed to tell my management. A year into my current job, my laparoscopy came around and it was time for me to inform my place of work.

As far as work goes, I cannot complain about how ‘accommodating’ they have been. I work in a place where I cannot just change my shifts to day time hours only, I can’t just take half a day if I need to. Two operations totalling to 9 weeks off work, appointments coming out of my ears and all varying with regards to where I am in my cycle, I have never struggled to get the time off I need and have only ever found my manager to be supportive. However, that is not to say there aren’t any faults.

When I was first diagnosed as infertile, I have made no secret of the fact my mental health deteriorated at a rate I cannot describe. However, when you are in that situation, you don’t always know you need help. What made my work bearable, thankfully, was an angel I was blessed with on my team. I’m sure she won’t mind me naming her; Emma. Where work was involved, I had no idea where to turn. I had no idea who to tell I was struggling, I didn’t want to tell anyone I was struggling and considering I work in a stressful environment, I didn’t want anyone to know I wasn’t coping as I was scared of how this would impact my job. I had what many people in my situation don’t have, a good friend at work who at that time I considered my guardian angel. She knew I was struggling and was fiercely protective of me (and still is) all at the same time. I didn’t need a mental health champion because I was incredibly lucky to have my very own champion as a friend next to me every day. In time I have developed a relationship with another girl on my team who has grown to be an incredible friend, who I am so lucky to have help me throughout this, who never refuses an ear or a shoulder when I need one. Not everyone is that lucky at work.

Fertility Network have recently launched a new initiative; Fertility in the Workplace, an initiative to ensure that people going through IVF feel fully supported in the workplace, providing guidance to both employees and their employers to understand the full impact infertility and IVF treatment has on its patients. You can read the full initiative here.

Sometimes, you get lucky. Other times, you don’t and you have employers and a HR department who treat IVF as an ‘optional procedure’, like a cosmetic surgery if you will. An optional procedure is choosing to have your breasts enlarged, a bit of filler in your cheek or an implant in your backside. IVF isn’t something anybody “wants” to do. Nobody asked to be infertile, nobody wants to sit and tell their boss that they need help getting pregnant. However, some of us have to and requesting support is not too much to ask.

The impact infertility has on a person’s mental health is huge. The stress, the medication and the pressure is only going to impact your work and without an environment where you have someone to talk to, or someone who at least empathises with your situation. IVF is never ideal, and it certainly isn’t ideal in the workplace. The taboo around it needs to change. Pronto.

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