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Five steps to becoming a fertility-friendly workplace

Becky Kearns - Fertility Matters At Work

With an overwhelming need for clearer fertility policies and lines of associated communication to be implemented as a workplace support mechanism, here are some simple ways businesses can become fertility-friendly.

Following the Fertility Treatment (Employment Rights) bill being read in parliament in June, and lesbian, bi women and trans people no longer facing additional barriers to accessing IVF, fertility is becoming a more prominent topic in the business world.

Here are five steps to becoming a fertility-friendly workplace:

1. Clear policies and communications
Often a policy is where employees first look to see if their workplace even recognises fertility treatment. A dedicated fertility policy or guidance is a great starting point but not the only answer to invoke change in this space.

A Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) Report¹  found that ‘having a (fertility) policy is generally beneficial, to give legitimacy to the issue, but there is a need to go beyond a prescriptive policy and apply more personalised responses along the lines of ‘reasonable adjustments’ in equality legislation. The nature of the policy, and its operationalisation, needs to be carefully considered, to recognise the sensitivity of the subject and concerns around privacy and confidentiality.’

Experts at FMAW suggest ensuring that a fertility policy is clearly communicated to employees when instated and that it’s not located under maternity policies or other policies that relate directly to any type of parental leave, which can be particularly triggering for someone who is desperately trying to become a parent.

Reviewing current HR policies, systems and communication in their entirety should also be at the top of a business’s agenda. For example, The MMU Report¹ found ‘sometimes, elements of broader HR policies, systems and paperwork around absence management, selection or promotion are not fit for purpose (or adapted in practice) for accounting for complex fertility journey issues, and could add to an individual’s emotional challenges.’

One female management level employee shared: “Basically, after the miscarriage, you tick a box on a sickness form, and it says, ‘Is it pregnancy related?’ and you go ‘Yes’ and then you write down miscarriage. You then get an email two weeks later from HR going, ‘Oh, congratulations!’. This is an example of why reviewing current HR policies, systems and communication in its entirety should be at the top of a business’s agenda.

2. Educational training
Raising awareness of fertility issues in the workplace is an important educational piece for all employees; however, it’s particularly pertinent to offer training for line managers. Research conducted by FMAW¹ found that line managers are crucial to providing appropriate support. Still, managers often lack training and guidance (from either internal policy or HR), often leading them to deal with these situations on their own.

The report by MMU¹ also found that without training, some managers reported ‘stress, upset, feelings of powerlessness, and/or extra work when dealing with this issue.’ This was compiled by uncertainty over how long reasonable adjustments/time off could be provided if an employee needed multiple fertility treatment cycles and how to balance this with the needs of the business.

The managers who seemed most able to offer the appropriate level of support to employees were those with significant management experience and viewed the issue as an extension/element of managing staff health/wellbeing more generally.

Educational training could be conducted in the form of workshops, participating in online webinars, and having access to inclusive, comprehensive learning materials. Becky adds: “Bringing these stories to life is an important part of the educational piece, in demonstrating the significant impact it can have, the diversity of those affected and what a difference a supportive line manager can make.”

3. Workload considerations – Flexibility
As The MMU Report¹ highlights, there is a considerable amount of ‘work’ involved for people in navigating a complex fertility journey which may include identifying fertility problems, dealing with underlying health conditions, liaising with doctors, attending appointments, and undergoing treatments, among other things.

These all take up time and energy and can be emotionally charged. With this in mind, organisations should allow employees to plan fertility-related appointments alongside their day-to-day workload. If a regular, two-way conversation is held between the employee and line manager, adjustments can be made and managers will have clearer expectations of what their direct reports can realistically deliver during this temporary period. Flexibility can make a huge difference in keeping employees at work during fertility treatment and its multiple, sometimes unpredictable, appointments.

4. Building Internal Support Networks
In response to FMAW’s 2022 survey¹, one participant said: “Having someone in the organisation that actually understood about the fertility journey, someone who is there for both managers and employees to go to for guidance and support would make a huge difference.”

With a breadth of similar responses, providing a social support group for employees who have gone through a difficult journey or who are currently experiencing IVF struggles can be a key resource in dealing with emotional challenges.

The starting point for this is often through opening up conversations internally and awareness raising through story-telling, where employees are comfortable to do so.

5. External support and signposting
Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP) can be a tremendous source of support for those on complex fertility journeys. While some clinics offer counselling, it’s often costly, and the content and number of sessions can vary.

During clinic counselling sessions, the MMU Report¹ found that there was often little scope for discussing work/career concerns, yet balancing work and fertility can be a huge stress factor. With this in mind, businesses could consider offering more specialised fertility counselling through their workplace schemes, with practitioners trained explicitly in fertility counselling who can also provide an opportunity to talk through workload concerns.

Occupational Health providers should also be aware of the impact fertility struggles can have, physically and mentally, to provide additional support in any temporary workplace adjustments.

Becky Kearns, Co-Founder of FMAW, comments on becoming a fertility-friendly workplace: “If businesses start by implementing a dedicated fertility policy whilst also reviewing their current HR policies and practices, with flexibility provided, it could positively transform a person’s whole fertility journey and ultimately ensure open and constructive communication between managers and employees.

“In turn, this could benefit the business hugely in terms of employee engagement and retention, considering our research that over 61% didn’t feel comfortable talking to their manager about this issue and a staggering 36% of individuals considered leaving their jobs whilst going through treatment.

“It’s essential to think about now and be ahead of the curve. Conversations in parliament are already underway to provide the statutory right to employees for time off for fertility appointments. Just like the cultural change around women’s health in menopause at work, fertility is also an issue businesses have to consider.

“We’re encouraging employers to make the commitment to become one of the first 100 companies to be fertility-friendly. We have already welcomed many forward-thinking businesses, which has highlighted how many organisations are eager to support their employees and put fertility-friendly policies and practices in place. One organisation we’re really proud to be supporting as a member is Selfridges, a high-end department store chain voted one of the best in the world.

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