More than half of employees with fertility problems not getting support at work, survey finds

Experts say ‘throwing money’ at the issue isn’t necessary, as low to no-cost help is available through staff benefits

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More than half (55 per cent) of employees struggling with fertility problems or going through fertility treatment are not getting the support they need from their employers, a survey has found.

The study by Fertility Network UK, commissioned by Middlesex University and released to coincide with National Fertility Awareness week, found the majority (77 per cent) of workers struggling with fertility issues had disclosed this to their employer, but only a quarter (25 per cent) felt their employer had a supportive workplace policy.

In the poll of 1,300 fertility patients for Fertility Network’s The impact of fertility challenges and treatment report just under half (47 per cent) said reasonable adjustments – like fridges for medications, a quiet space to inject or flexibility to take last-minute calls – had been made.

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Clare Ettinghausen, director of strategy and corporate affairs at the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, said around 60,000 people use fertility services every year in the UK and, for many of them, it can be an “emotional and stressful” time. “While some employers are mindful of this and provide support, we know there will be others that do not, and we understand how difficult this must be for patients,” she added.

The report also found that more than a third (36 per cent) of respondents felt their career was damaged as a result of fertility treatment, and the majority (58 per cent) felt concerned that fertility treatment would affect their career prospects.

However, conflicting results from a similar survey by Zurich revealed that more than half of women (58 per cent) who undergo IVF treatment do not feel able to tell their employer. The poll of 250 women found a third (32 per cent) believed disclosing their IVF status would put their job at risk, while a quarter (26 per cent) felt their commitment to the job would be questioned. 

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Joanne Moseley, employment law expert at Irwin Mitchell, said supporting staff through the process didn’t mean employers had to “throw lots of money” at the issue, and highlighted several “inexpensive” steps to take. “You can help raise awareness by holding internal presentations or workshops and provide training for managers about how to manage staff undergoing treatment,” said Moseley. “It is important for your managers to understand the legal implications at each stage of the IVF process to avoid any sex or pregnancy-related discrimination claims.”

Moseley also highlighted the importance of policy relating to IVF, which could improve transparency. She added that a “clear policy will also help your managers apply the rules consistently and can help to manage employees' expectations”.

Helen Burgess, employment partner at Gateley Legal, said financial support could also be beneficial, and “doesn’t have to cost anything”. She suggested interest-free loans or employee benefits schemes that find treatment as “no or low-cost” options for employers.

But she warned that a change in law could ramp up employer support. “There is currently a bill going through parliament that would require employers to allow employees to take time off from work for appointments for fertility treatment, and for connected purposes,” said Burgess, adding that if this is enacted it would mean businesses would “have to make provision” for employees undergoing treatment.

However, Steve Collinson, chief HR officer at Zurich UK, said that while a change in law would be a logical first step, employers will need to do more. “Enshrining IVF leave as a right for all women won’t solve the whole problem, but it is a huge step towards ensuring that IVF is better understood and more sensitively handled in the workplace,” he said.