Infertility & the Workplace
I had the privilege of watching some of the Noble Prize dialogues on “The Future of Work” this week. The discussions all highlighted some fascinating points about the world of work along with the direction we are headed in in the future. There is no doubt that digital advancements and what has been called the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ or ‘4IR’ is swiftly changing the world of work. It is also evident that the global pandemic has sped this up in many ways too. In the last year, many of us shifted from working in an office to now working remotely from home. This has offered an unusual kind of personal freedom that may not have existed before.
What does this have to do with infertility?
Well, it’s made me wonder how the shifting landscape of workplaces is impacting people’s experiences when it comes to creating balance between your work life and infertility. For instance, have things such as taking time out of your working day to attend doctors appointments or get bloodworks done become easier now that you are working remotely? Or, depending on the kind of work you do, has it had the opposite effect (especially for those frontline workers), making tending to your fertility needs even more complicated instead?
Generally speaking, this is an area that’s clouded with a lot of uncertainty. Balancing your work life while dealing with infertility (especially when going through a cycle of fertility treatment) at the same time can feel like skating on thin ice. It is a heavy emotional load to carry, and there may also be so many moving parts or pressing demands on your time that make it all extremely overwhelming. Your fertility is such an intimate part of your life, so few people are ever sure how to approach the topic at work, what to say or how much to share about it. Consequently, you may find yourself in a catch 22 situation where you are trying to minimize your workload or work stress for the benefit of your fertility, but at the same time trying not to let your infertility struggles affect your career trajectory.
Your experience of this is hugely influenced by the nature of your work and what your individual work environment and employee policies look like. Some employers are understanding and may even have policies or benefits that accommodate employees who are going through infertility. However, unfortunately not many do. I personally chose to pursue the path of self-employment partly because I’d noticed how unaccommodating my previous place of employment was when it came to things like maternity leave, time off for health related issues and family responsibility issues too. They offered very little support to employees in general. At the time, I didn’t know that I would battle with infertility, however, I was ready to grow my family and wanted to create a work life that nurtured this desire. I’ve had a number of conversations with acquaintances dealing with fertility issues who’ve made similar choices – either changing jobs or cutting back on their hours. Although some were fortunate to have an understanding manager who supported them as much as possible, they still wanted to reduce their work-related stress while going through their fertility treatment. Others were not so lucky and their decisions were influenced by the fatigue of having to battle with employers who took issue with the time they needed for appointments, surgeries and other fertility-related matters. When faced with added overwhelm, depression and sometimes burnout, they found themselves in a position where they chose to make changes that they felt best supported their chances of conceiving.
But, not everyone has that option, and it also seems unfair to be pushed into a corner of silent struggle. So the question then becomes how do you navigate your work/life and cope with infertility in such instances? The answers are not clear cut. I’d started out writing this piece with the intention of sharing tips on how to manage the load. But I soon realised that it is actually a bigger picture issue which highlights that workplaces need to be more aware of how these issues affect their employees. There is a need for companies to evaluate how they can create structures that support staff facing difficulties. Research shows that most individuals, both men and women, struggling with infertility or who are undergoing treatment choose not to disclose this information to their employer. This is for various reasons. For one, there is the stigma of shame and embarrassment attached to how their infertility will be perceived. Another reason is that individuals fear how sharing about their infertility at work will negatively impact on their career progress. This comes across quite clearly in a Forbes article by author and behavioural scientist, Dr. Pragya Agarwal, which was published in March 2020. Dr. Agarwal wrote that:
“In most cases, infertility is surrounded by silence and stigma and women, in particular, are reluctant to share this in the workplace, for fear of being stereotyped. In general, women already face a number of barriers and biases in the workplace. Mothers specifically face a motherhood penalty even before they have a child…Therefore, many women might make the decision to not share their infertility treatment with their employers and managers.”
Dr. Agarwal added that in her own case, she did not feel comfortable being open about her infertility at work, saying that:
“Infertility can come as a huge surprise and shock, and I did not feel ready to share this with the wider world. But, more importantly, I was unsure of how my line managers would react to the news that I was actively trying to have a child. I was fearful of the impact this would have on the opportunities that would be available to me for leadership in the workplace, and that people would judge me and assume that I was not as committed to my career.”
This shows how infertility remains a ‘silent experience’. I was particularly interested in Dr. Agarwal’s discussion points around her experience with approaching HR about the company’s fertility policies. She wrote the following:
“When I enquired in confidence with HR, I was informed that there was no fertility treatment workplace policy. Nor did they have any knowledge of the process of fertility treatments and the need to take time off for surgeries and post-ops, and neither did they have any understanding of the huge mental and physical impact that fertility treatments can have. I was fitting in injections and doctor appointments around my work commitments.”
This may sound all too familiar for some, as so many women have found themselves out in the cold in a similar fashion.
Fertility Network UK is one of the few organizations who run an initiative to educate and encourage companies to put in place fertility policies for employee support. In addition to seeing the mental health benefits that such policies could have for affected individuals, Fertility Network UK also indicate that multiple research studies show that “employees who feel supported and engaged with their employer, perform better at work and are less likely to leave; importantly though, it is also shown that the employer experiences improved business outcomes.” They thus believe that structures such as mental health and fertility policies stand to improve employee productivity, morale and satisfaction, which in turn is good for business and may also prevent good employees from leaving.
Just as the world of work is evolving, so too is the nature of problems that people and employees face. Women are having children later in life than in previous generations. The number of couples faced with infertility is increasing. So it seems logical that company processes and policies incorporate this into their understanding. In terms of creating solutions to such problems, Serena G. Sohrab and Nada Basir offer a few pointers in the Harvard Business Review piece that they penned, titled, ‘Employers, It’s Time to Talk About Infertility’. Some of their suggestions for what they call ‘infertility-informed leadership’ can be summarised as follows:
Give voice to the silence by recognizing that infertility is a normal aspect of our lives and we should discuss it openly and normalize the conversation around fertility. They say that this is important in “creating an environment where women feel supported to share their treatment and career plans with their employer.”
Create infertility-informed policies. Sohrab and Basir suggest that “creating a fertility policy that covers benefits such as time off for pre-conception, reduced hours and duties, counseling, and financial support can help employees navigate the challenges around their treatment.” They add that this can also “send a strong signal that you’re a family-friendly employer, which can help attract and retain talent.”
Educate managers about the impact of fertility treatments on work and provide guidance on potential solutions when it comes to things like managing treatment appointments around work, time out of the office or understanding that fertility treatments can necessitate sick leave.
Sohrab and Basir also suggest that employers offer flexibility in career planning. They wrote that: “While some women may choose to move to less-stressful positions during treatment, others may prefer to seek challenging opportunities in anticipation of a slower pace after pregnancy or as a positive emotional offset to the struggles of infertility. The former benefits from programs that will help her get back on track when she’s ready, whereas the latter appreciates the support to freely pursue her ambitions despite her unpredictable life setting.”
Has your infertility ever impacted on your work life? How did you work around your challenges and cope with that? What do you think employers could do to provide infertility-informed leadership?