With one in six couples experiencing fertility issues, organisations will invariably be affected by employees who are going through in vitro fertilisation (IVF) treatment. Since its inception with the birth of Louise Brown in July 1978, five million couples worldwide have opted for IVF to enable them to have a family. Despite its age and the fact that the industry is worth a huge £600m a year, IVF is still not given the attention it deserves. It is still a highly taboo subject in the workplace, and to change this attitude, it needs more focus from HR – especially around policy development.
HR professionals are equipped with a plethora of leadership skills, but sadly not specifically how to deal with infertility – even though it is highly likely that a number of their organisation’s employees have been or are going through this challenge. People don't understand IVF as it has little exposure, and media coverage doesn’t do it justice either.
I am both an HR professional and someone who has undergone IVF treatment, but because of this lack of understanding, I would simply tell people I did not 'want' children, as the alternative conversation was too painful. The physical and mental health challenges also impacted both my job and my performance. Hearing work colleagues announce their pregnancies at work became intolerable and I would often shut myself in the toilets and cry about it alone. Nobody at work ever knew.
If you work in HR and are privileged enough to know that one of your employees is undergoing IVF treatment, flexibility and understanding are key. Having a transparent policy that identifies specific support for those going through fertility treatment is vital. Half of the respondents in a 2016 research survey – The Impact of Fertility Problems – by Middlesex University and charity Fertility Network UK said they needed more than a week off during one cycle, and the survey found that people who were not supported by their employer often took more time off work.
You should also avoid saying it isn't an illness. Infertility is defined by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the National Institute for Health Care and Excellence (NICE) as a 'disease of the reproductive system'. You have no idea 'how' or 'why' someone is infertile.
It is important to make sure employees know that they will not be discriminated against or treated less favourably due to treatment, and that opportunities such as career progression will not be impacted as a result of treatment. With women now holding more senior positions in business, there is a harsh reality that this may be one of the main reasons IVF is not mentioned to employers.
Refrain from using language such as 'just IVF'. IVF isn't trivial – it is life-changing. You wouldn't say 'just cancer' to someone with the disease, after all. Indicating that you 'know' people who have had IVF is also not helpful. Everyone is different and can require radically different cycle treatments. Also be aware that the failure rate is currently approximately 75 per cent for each cycle, and becomes higher with age. The consequences of repeated failures are similar to grief, and should be dealt with as such.
For those who turn to surrogacy, having a dedicated policy to support them is also important.
Organisations taking the lead on supporting employees undergoing IVF treatment will no doubt have a competitive edge as it becomes more prevalent – the rate is steadily increasing by 5 per cent every year. Supportive and innovative organisations that embed support for IVF into their culture will be rewarded with a more engaged workforce.
Claire Ingle is HR resourcing manager at Pennine Care NHS Trust. After three rounds of IVF, she is currently on maternity leave following the birth of her daughter in February 2018