Content warning: The following article discusses infertility and discrimination in the context of the workplace. It is our job to provide informative resources for anyone going through or who may go through the problems discussed, however if you do not feel happy reading, please stop here.
For many prospective parents, having a baby whilst in full-time work is complicated enough. For some who experience fertility problems, these stressors can be even worse.
The NHS advises that it may be time to consult your GP if you have been having regular, unprotected sex with your partner for a year, with no success. They define regular as every 2 to 3 days. Hard work hey!
You may also need to contact your GP sooner if you are a woman over the age of 36, or you are concerned you have gone through treatments which may affect your fertility. Examples of this might be undergoing cancer treatment, or if you know or suspect you may have had a sexually transmitted infection.
Fertility is something which affects all people when trying for a baby. For both men and women alike, problems can affect not only people’s mental health, but also friends, family, and even relationships in the workplace.
In the following article, we discuss what the subject of fertility looks like in the workplace, as well as why a comprehensive understanding and destigmatisation of fertility problems are so important for an inclusive working environment.
What we’ll be looking into:
- Fertility impacts at work
- The benefits of a fertility policy
- Opening up the conversation for male fertility issues
- What an inclusive employer might look like
- How to approach the conversation at work
Why is infertility a workplace issue?
Infertility is a normal aspect of many prospective parents’ lives, with 1 in 6 being affected globally.
Therefore, as the problem is so common, it should be respected, normalised and destigmatised across workplace policies everywhere, right?
Unfortunately, this is not quite the case. Research shows that whilst workplace support for those undergoing fertility treatments is vital, the demands and pressures of work often make the experience much harder.
As a result of this, according to The Fertility Network, 38% of workers affected had either strongly considered leaving their role, or indeed had left their role at the time.
A main reason for this is the incompatibility of being able to schedule appointments with the pressures of work.
Whilst it is possible to take annual leave or sick leave in order to do this, we spoke to Shaun Greenaway, a male fertility advocate diagnosed with azoospermia. He says that “it’s [a fertility journey] a very painful and stressful situation anyway, and when you’re adding secrecy on top of that, shrouding appointments with annual leave for example, it’s just an additional stressor”.
Whether you are in a relationship, supporting family or friends undergoing fertility treatment, a single mum or a same-sex couple, it’s time to normalise the pressures that aspiring parents face in the workplace, as a high policy priority for employee retention everywhere.
The impacts of a fertility policy in the workplace
Whilst there are statutory policies for maternity leave, fertility policies are significantly less common. Kate Davies, director of Your Fertility Journey and independent fertility and women’s health nurse consultant says that “the majority of [work] places don’t have a fertility policy at all. And the ones that do, in most of them, it’ll be stuck to a maternity policy”.
This is a huge problem, as Davies reminds us that “if someone is going through a fertility journey, the last place they want to have to go to look at what they might be entitled to is on a maternity policy that discusses time off postnatally”.
Not only might this belittle the experiences of someone going through a fertility journey, but also feed into a wider workplace culture that confines problems, such as these, to a woman’s issue.
This is a problem for two main reasons. Without the recognition of the distinctions between various health issues, there is a worry that fertility problems, in line with maternity, menopause and period rights might affect women in terms of their employability. If they are seen as employees who need more time off for health reasons, employers may be biased against them.
The second reason is that the statistics show that an equal number of men are affected by fertility problems as women. These data illustrate that generally for heterosexual couples, 30% of fertility problems are due to the man, 30% are due to the woman, and 30-40 due to either both, or unknown variables.
Whilst women may still be perceived to carry the burden of fertility, knowing how it affects both sexes equally might make having a fertility policy discussed as solely a women’s health problem seem ridiculous.
Infertility journeys for men
In addition to the normalcy of male infertility, unfortunately men are not so likely to open up about these problems, in Greenaway’s experience. He says, “us men have got a long way to go with talking about any kind of perceived weakness”. It is his goal that men globally start to recognise their infertility not as a weakness, but as a normal aspect of life.
When Greenaway was navigating his fertility journey, he remembers how isolated he felt. He says, “I couldn’t find any other men talking about it when I was going through it, I felt alone”. As a result, it is now his hope to start talking about this and shift the conversation away from fertility being solely a women’s health issue.
When working with male-dominated institutions, Davies says that a real workplace culture shift needs to change. Opening up the conversation by showing the facts all help to remove this gendered aspect of fertility because ultimately, as Davies notes, “it’s all well and good having a fertility policy but if you don’t change the culture, it’s not going to have as big of an impact”.
What does an inclusive employer look like?
Central to the aim of both of our fertility experts’ work is how important destigmatisation of infertility in the workplace is.
“The workplace is an area that is so difficult to navigate when you are going through a fertility journey”, Davies explains. “An employee might feel like they can’t talk about it with their employer for fear of looking like they don’t care about their work because they want to have a baby”.
Some workplaces offer policies which help to normalise fertility journeys. For example, Bristol City Council and ASDA both allow paid time off for fertility treatments, and The University of Dundee allows time off for investigations too.
Your workplace may not have a fertility policy; however it should be an open and inclusive space where you feel like you are entitled to share personal problems, especially if they impact your productivity at work.
Davies says that “the line manager is pivotal; they are the most important person in this conversation”. If this applies to you, we hope that you can be an open ear for your employees, for both their satisfaction, and productivity in the workplace.
Infertility is what Davies calls “a Cinderella subject”. She explains that “we just want to sweep it under the rug and not talk about it”.
It is time to open up the conversation.
Top tips for approaching this conversation at work
The truth is, when it comes to the destigmatisation of a topic, it is not only those affected that should be working towards creating a more comfortable environment for themselves, and future employees to come.
All people within the workplace have a part they can play. Here are some top tips for doing this:
- Talk about fertility as a health-related topic, rather than a private or personal conversation.
- Think about enlisting the help of a fertility coach or consultant to provide educational resources about fertility, with the aim of normalising the prevalence of it.
- Advocate to or work with your human resources department to devise additional, separate fertility policies for all members of staff.
- Encourage male fertility advocates to speak at company events, so that any male-affected employee feels more seen and not alone.
- If you are a decision-maker, consider allowing extra paid time off and/or flexible, remote working for affected employees, to make them feel more comfortable.
Infertility is a completely normal, common health consideration for many employees who want to conceive.
This want to conceive should not diminish any employee’s credibility as a worker, and their personal, familial goals should not be perceived to reflect on their personal career goals either.
Whilst infertility has a space within some organisations, it is often miscategorised within a maternity policy. There is a lot more work that needs to be done in order to separate these issues.
This destigmatisation work is vital for the health and satisfaction of both female and male employees alike, and something that organisations are not doing enough to address.
This article marks the last of our inequality at work series, and other resources can be found on our website.
We hope this series has helped touch on some areas of the health conversation and highlighted in each the importance of destigmatising and opening up about all employees’ health in the workplace.
At Kari Health, we don’t want employees to feel like they need to hide, or unwillingly sacrifice their career for fear of being discriminated against. We know that every individual deserves the right to a happy and comfortable workplace.
You can check out the vital work that our fertility experts from this piece are doing on Instagram:
Shaun Greenaway: @knackered_knackers
Kate Davies: @your_fertility_nurse
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