June is World Infertility Awareness Month. With approximately one in six couples in the UK experiencing infertility, the need for employers to engage in the conversation and support the workforce through every possible fertility journey has never been greater.
But what can organisations do to support their people experiencing infertility?
This was a hot topic at The Watercooler event last month and – with 66% of organisations either already offering fertility benefits or considering doing so in the future – fertility support is an emerging trend that seems here to stay.
Here, Peppy’s Clinical Director of Fertility Services, Francesca Steyn answers some of the most commonly asked questions about how employers can take action this Infertility Awareness Month – and beyond.
Why is infertility an issue for the workplace?
On the surface, struggling to start or grow a family might seem like a deeply personal issue – and it is, to any individual, couple or group of people going through it.
But infertility also has significant implications for employees’ working patterns, engagement, productivity and even their ability to show up at work.
Last year, research by Peppy and the British Infertility Counselling Service (BICA) found that 40% of people who were struggling to conceive said they had considered quitting their jobs and 60% said their work had been negatively affected as a result.
For employees who are going through fertility treatment such as IUI or IVF, the physical experience can be gruelling, including invasive procedures and daily injections as well as the psychological stress of having to wait for results – plus the very possible trauma of a negative outcome.
There is also a profound impact on employees’ mental health; 90% of people struggling with fertility say they experienced depression symptoms of some kind. All this means that organisations which are committed to supporting employees’ mental and physical wellbeing need to take infertility seriously.
How can men be involved in the conversation?
It’s a myth that fertility is a women’s issue. In fact, men account for around half of all fertility issues and male-factor infertility is on the rise.
As a partner in a heterosexual or same-sex relationship, individually or even as a donor, men need to be considered as part of the fertility journey just as much as women. And yet, all too often men are side lined during conversations about fertility – in doctors appointments, discussions with family and at work.
Employers have the power to break down the stigma around a topic that is still largely viewed as taboo – particularly for men – and make men part of the conversation.
This starts with raising awareness of all the different fertility issues and journeys the workforce might face, building this into an organisation’s onboarding processes and line manager training in the same way as a health and safety policy would be.
Employers should offer safe spaces for their people to ask questions and talk openly about trying to conceive, going through treatment and alternative paths to parenthood. These could include group chats, virtual events geared towards a male audience and access to real, human fertility experts over private chat and one-to-one video calls for evidence-based support. Senior male employees should lead by example by sharing their experiences.
It’s not just about making it ok for male colleagues to talk about their fertility plans, worries and struggles, it’s about encouraging and applauding their openness.
What can be done to make infertility support inclusive?
Firstly, organisations need to ensure that support for fertility is designed with every member of the workforce in mind – not just a select few.
Emotional, practical and financial support are all vital aspects of caring for employees who are struggling with their fertility. This may include connecting staff to fertility grief counsellors over chat or call, offering financial support for gamete freezing or IVF, or providing practical guidance for the process of finding a surrogate or adoption.
But, crucially, the support available should encompass all genders, all sexual orientations and a wide age range, as well as single parents. It’s important, also, not to make assumptions about who on the team might be trying (or not trying) to have a baby.
HR and Benefits teams should make sure that the needs of LGBTQ+ people are specifically catered for, as their fertility journeys are often complex, financially burdening and under-served.
Secondly, organisations need to ensure that any support offered for infertility is accessible to everyone in the organisation.
The most accessible support is remote-access, delivered anonymously, including digital health apps, on-demand resources, at-home fertility testing and follow-up appointments. Support should be free of charge to the end user and offered to all ages and pay grades across the workforce.
Finally, to maximise uptake of the support available, it’s down to senior members of leadership, HR teams and line managers to make staff feel confident and comfortable using the benefits on offer. The pathway to support should be clear, reminders should come often and the topic of fertility should be discussed regularly – not just on awareness days.
How can I talk to a colleague about infertility?
Infertility is a sensitive subject. Ultimately, it’s up to the person going through the fertility journey how much and often they want to share.
As a line manager or HR leader, if someone on your team has openly spoken about struggling to conceive, the best thing you can do is remind them that your door is always open and signpost the support that is available.
If someone has experienced baby loss, a failed cycle of fertility treatment or is coming to terms with infertility, find out what emotional and practical support your organisation can offer during what is often a sad and lonely time. Connecting colleagues to real-life specialists can give them an all-important support system and impartial, evidence-based options for their next steps at a time when others can only offer platitudes.
First and foremost, prioritise building a workplace culture that treats colleagues with compassion, patience and understanding. Then, put in place the support systems and tools your team needs to navigate their fertility journey, wherever it takes them .
About the author
Francesca Steyn is the Director of Fertility and Women’s Health services at Peppy and Chair of the RCN (Royal College of Nursing) Fertility Nurses Forum. She has over 17 years experience as a fertility nurse specialist, both in the NHS and private sectors and has published Department of Health guidance on surrogacy best practice and care in surrogate births.
She was awarded surrogacy professional of the year in both 2018 and 2019 at the National Surrogacy Awards and is also a member of the legislative reform advisory