Infertility affects around 3.5 million people in the UK – around one in seven couples – according to the NHS. And of those choosing to undergo in vitro fertilisation (IVF) treatment, 58% are aged 35 or above and typically employed, finds the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA).
But despite infertility being officially classed as a medical problem, few employers have specific policies setting out any kind of support for employees.
A 2016 study from the Fertility Foundation UK and Middlesex University found that 19% of those going through IVF while in a UK workplace either reduced their hours or left their jobs entirely, 50% were worried treatment would affect their careers, and just 23% reported the existence of a supportive workplace policy.
So what can employers do to better support employees undergoing IVF treatment?
Education and policies
“When I work with employers the first step is always one of education and ensuring that leaders within the organisation and relevant members of the HR team understand IVF,” says former HRD at River Island Karen Beaven, who left the retail giant after her own fertility treatment experience and founded The IVF Coach.
Beaven, who offers a specialist consultancy to employers and IVF patients, explains that creating an open conversation about IVF is key. This is partly about ensuring managers are aware of the physical and emotional impact IVF can have on individuals – both patients and their partners – and creating a support framework that HR teams can deliver.
There is currently no legislation or official guidance on IVF workplace rights, perhaps explaining why so few organisations have policies in place. However, the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s Employment Statutory Code of Practice states that a woman undergoing IVF could claim for sex discrimination if refused unpaid leave, for example, or treated unfavourably. It also states that she is legally considered pregnant once an embryo is implanted, and entitled to the related protections and ante-natal care for the duration of the pregnancy or until two weeks after a failed pregnancy.
Claire Ingle, HR resourcing manager for Pennine Care NHS Foundation Trust, says that because IVF is not a one-size-fits-all treatment it is imperative for policies to allow for individually tailored approaches. “A policy needs to be broad enough to cover everybody but specific enough to take into consideration individual issues,” she explains. “People have different cancers and different treatments for those cancers and this works in the same way.”
Central to any policy, Ingle asserts, must be paid flexible working days. This is because of the unpredictable nature of IVF treatment times such as tests, egg collections and embryo transfers, which can be moved by several days according to hormone levels.
Aileen Feeney, CEO of fertility support charity Fertility Network UK, suggests that six or seven days would be a “safe” amount of flexible days to offer. “The gold standard would be 10 flexible days; otherwise they’ll have to use holiday or sick leave, which isn’t fair. You wouldn’t ask someone to take holiday for cancer treatment,” she adds.
Making small adjustments to the physical work environment can also hugely ease the strain that IVF can place on employees. Feeney explains that for women who have to inject themselves with hormones or insert pessaries – sometimes up to three or four times daily – a private clean space should be available, while somewhere to lie down afterwards for 30 minutes is ideal in the case of pessaries.
Asset data quality manager for Transport for London (TfL) Hannah Pettit has been through IVF herself, and found the organisation and her manager supportive. She is now planning to work within TfL’s existing Staff Network Groups to reach out to other people who have had similar experiences, offering the opportunity for them
to meet and talk. She believes that creating these opportunities for employees to meet others in similar situations will help reduce some of the feelings of isolation and stigma around IVF.
“What you need in an office and what you need in a Tube station are two very different things,” she explains.“Establishing opportunities where people can come together and talk about their experiences will help those responsible for developing guidelines. It offers the opportunity to add a more personal element to the advice that our diversity and inclusion and HR teams already offer.”
Other practical support employers could offer includes financial help and advice for those struggling with IVF fees, and access to counselling.
IVF has a failure rate of around 60%, so it is vital to be mindful that someone returning to work after an unsuccessful round of IVF has suffered a bereavement. Letting other staff show off new babies to colleagues can be highly insensitive, and sentiments such as “you can try again” or “you can have another one” is unhelpful, according to Beaven.
Ingle adds: “A fundamental change in culture is what’s needed to break down stigma and increase understanding, because as time progresses this will become more and more common.”