Infertility affects one in six people in the workforce: Fiona Skinner, Founder of the Fertility Coaching Company, is determined to bring more attention to this fact and encourage HR leaders to include a fertility policy in their workplace.
Q: One in eight male and female couples in the UK are affected by fertility issues. And this figure may be higher for same sex couples and solo parents. Yet at the same time, more than 50% of employees don’t feel comfortable discussing their fertility journey with their line manager. What are some of the reasons why employers and employees aren’t discussing this issue?
A: “I think there’s still a sense of shame and guilt about sharing fertility journeys at work. I know there certainly was for me. I tried to combine this journey with a senior role in an international company and I’ve seen firsthand how difficult it is. It’s not necessarily something you want to bring into the office. I think everybody has a work persona, everybody has a bit of a poker face. And we’re not used to sharing our personal lives, particularly something which could be painful and traumatic, with everyone in the office. There are still a lot of taboos in and around fertility. People are very conscious of those taboos. And as the Fertility Network says, 50 per cent of people don’t share their story because they fear career consequences. They fear only a negative reaction, they fear, they might be sidelined. So it is understandable that they don’t share their journeys. Until we get that safe space for disclosure in the office, it will continue to be like this. But let’s hope it changes soon.”
Q: What are some of the things that HR and DEI leaders can do to encourage disclosure?
A: “There are a lot of things that can be done. We know that employees will share their story if they feel that they are going to be supported. HR leaders and business leaders can take expert guidance on how to handle those conversations in the right way. I spoke to one HR leader the other day, and she was saying she is still quite nervous about having conversations around loss around miscarriage. And it’s understandable. It’s a very traumatic area. Unless you’ve had some expert guidance in that area, about the right language, the right tools to use, then business leaders and HR leaders can be exposed. But there is that expert support out there. Bring in the right experts to try and make sure those conversations are as delicate or sensitive and as effective as they can be.”
Q: How can treatment for fertility affects a person both physically and mentally in the workplace?
A: “From my own experience, and speaking to others, it can have a huge impact on the workplace. We know that 90 per cent of people going through fertility treatments experience depression and some even feel like they’re going through suicidal feelings. And that’s just the emotional side of it. A typical IVF journey in a London clinic can be one where you into work, you have a call from the clinic, you have to race to the clinic for appointments, for scans, for blood tests then race back to the office. Managing a work schedule and managing a medication schedule can be incredibly traumatic. You are feeling bloated and toxic from the drugs. It’s not for the faint hearted. For high-performing individuals, they can experience a strong loss of control and those feelings around loss of control can be really, really difficult to manage.”
Q: What would you say to people who ask why an employer should get involved in something so personal?
A: “I think that’s a really good question, and it’s one that we’ve been asked. I think employers have a duty of care to their employees and this falls within that supportive area. We know the positive benefits of employee sharing, knowing where they can access the right level of support, where employers can create those positive, inclusive workplaces. And even if an employee doesn’t disclose, they have a right to work in an environment where fertility and family journeys are respected and included as part of that inclusive workplace. Fertility policies should be standalone policies rather than just add ons. Both employees and employers deserve that.”
Q: It’s a complicated area, isn’t it, and one that is changing all the time.
A: “Absolutely. What strikes me, when we talk to HR managers, how often they haven’t come across managing fertility treatments before. Treatments are so diverse now, such as embryo adoption. It’s a really complex area and it doesn’t surprise me that there isn’t guidance in place. But talking about it like we’re doing today, in the public domain, is really going to bring those issues to light and get more people involved around these key issues.”
Q: What is your hope for the future in terms of recognition for those undergoing fertility treatment? Is there scope for review of British law in this area?
A: “What’s really interesting is just how little is understood in the workplace around fertility. One of the lawyers I know in this space estimates that probably less than 5 per cent of employers know the fact that anyone going through fertility treatment is entitled to pregnancy rights at the point of embryo transfer. Now, that’s really, really important, because that changes the whole landscape. Something that we are starting to lobby for is that the protective window for people going through fertility journeys is brought forward. So it’s not just at the point of embryo transfer, it should be much earlier in that process so that people are protected throughout their facility journeys, not just by the time they get to an embryo transfer.
“More understanding is critical to ensuring that employees feel supported on their fertility journey, including employers being aware of the processes people are going through and understanding what employees need to manage their work and their personal lives.”
Q: So, to clarify, at the moment, the law in the UK means that people undergoing fertility treatment have the same rights as any type of family planning at the point of embryo transfer?
A: “Yes, they are legally entitled to the same rights as if they were pregnant. You know, what I would say is that employers may not know this, but I suspect millennials coming through will do. We’re looking at a whole new generation of informed, proactive, educated employees who absolutely know their rights and what they’re entitled to at key stages of their fertility journeys.
“Policies are being looked at differently now, for example with whole sections on mindfulness in the office, flexible working and more leniency around performance reviews.”
Q: Currently only 17 per cent of companies currently have a fertility policy. Why do you think this figure is so low and what examples have you seen of organisations doing good work in this area?
A: “I think it’s because employers don’t really know where to go for the right level of support. You know, there aren’t that many fertility experts out there who have a grasp of the bigger picture. And there are only a few law firms specialising in fertility that organisations can ask for legal advice. It’s also a significant investment for lots of companies. It’s a complex landscape and there aren’t that many people navigating the way through. But there are some people coming forward slowly. I was delighted the other day when I read about one of the leading investment in banks that has set up a medication room for people going through IVF where they can take their medication in a private setting. This is so, so important, particularly in in COVID times. I have also read about wellbeing pods so employees can take some time out: they’re fantastic initiative for everyone.
“NatWest is very open about talking about its employee loss network, where employees can talk and share with each other. We often find that when one person shares a story, others feel more confident sharing. There’s an amazing sense of community built around that.”
Q: What does diversity and inclusion mean to you?
A: “In the context of developing an inclusive culture around infertility, I would say it means that your own family journey, whatever that might be, whether it’s solo parenthood or surrogacy, or embryo adoption, should be respected, nurtured and supported in the right way. I’m passionate about building inclusive cultures around infertility. When employers really start to listen it will make a positive difference to people in the workplace, and change workplace culture for the better.”