Fertility friendly workplaces

One in six people in the UK experience fertility problems, but many are reluctant to speak to their employer. Charlotte Goddard finds out how managers can support their staff

Gem Baker, manager, Nanny Jo’s Nursery, was supported through her fertility journey by owner Jo Hearne

Almost one in four employees in the education sector would call in sick rather than share their fertility struggles with their employer, according to a survey carried out by Fertility Family, an organisation that supports people trying to conceive. One in five said they feared that they wouldn’t be promoted if their employer knew they were trying for a child.

Meanwhile, research from charity Fertility Network shows that 58% of those facing fertility issues felt concerned that treatment would affect their career prospects, and 19% either reduced their hours or left their job.

Investigations to discover the cause of a fertility problem often take a long time, and people may have to take time off during their normal working hours. Women undergoing IVF treatment will need to attend the clinic on a regular basis over a period of a few weeks. Some parts of the treatment cycle may leave them unable to work.

“It is not that managers don’t want to support their team, but there are huge gaps in understanding,” says Claire Heuclin, co-ordinator of Fertility Network’s Fertility in the Workplace scheme. “Team members taking time off for fertility appointments should be treated by managers in the same way as they would treat any other medical appointments. The World Health Organization recognises infertility as a medical condition.”

Jo Hearne, owner of Nanny Jo’s Nursery and Letterbox Day Nursery in Essex, has supported managers of both settings with fertility issues. “Build a connection with team members so they feel able to talk to you,” she says. “If an employee would rather call in sick on the day than tell you they have a fertility appointment, you will have to scrabble about for cover on the day.”

 Nursery practitioners struggling with fertility are likely to face particular challenges, says Heuclin. “Working with children, if you have a massive need to have children yourself, must be very tricky, especially if treatment has been unsuccessful,” she comments. It is also nigh on impossible for nurseries to offer some of the support Fertility Network often advises people to ask for, such as the ability to work from home.

How to support staff

There are still many ways a nursery manager can support staff. It’s good practice to treat any request for time off for IVF treatment sympathetically, and consider adopting a procedure for dealing with such requests, perhaps allowing women to take annual leave or unpaid leave in order to receive treatment.

Fertility Network offers free education and support packages to small and medium sized businesses across the UK, which are defined as businesses with fewer than 250 employees. This includes one-to-one support for managers, online learning packages and guidance on developing a fertility policy tailored to a specific workplace.

“We’d recommend encouraging open conversations to help alleviate the isolation many people going through fertility challenges face, while offering training and resources to ensure that colleagues are also trained in how to handle conversations that can sometimes be very sensitive,” says a spokeperson from Fertility Family.

 “One simple thing you can do is put a poster up in the staff room to make everyone aware of fertility issues,” says Heuclin. “It shows people that the company is open to having those conversations and can also signpost them to support.” Free posters and fact sheets can be downloaded from Fertility Network’s website.

Managers should think about how to share news about other members of staff who may be going on maternity leave. “Sometimes people will say things like ‘Oh I wasn’t even trying’ which can be difficult to hear,” says Hearne.

If and when a team member who had a difficult journey to conception does become pregnant, managers need to be aware that this may be an especially anxious time for them. “A large number of people who go through IVF will have a loss on the way,” says Heuclin.

Fertility Family’s survey found that even when organisations do have supportive policies in place, employees are often unaware of them. Managers should ensure staff are aware of any policies offered by their employer.

Good practice

Gem Baker, manager of Nanny Jo’s Nursery, was told she would not be able to have children naturally after an operation for endometriosis. She raised money for treatment through crowdfunding and this year gave birth to “miracle baby” Clover-Iris Lark.

Hearne has gone above and beyond, supporting her manager at every stage. “Gem was destined to be a mother, she is very nurturing and gifted with children,” she says. “I became very involved because she didn’t have a partner, she was doing it through sperm donation. I went with her to her scans, and I was her birthing partner.”

Hearne says supporting staff with fertility issues is just part and parcel of a general supportive and compassionate management style. “We call it the Nanny Jo family,” she says. “I believe you get out what you put in. If someone works hard and is committed, then I will do all in my power to support them when needed.”

A ‘white flag day’ system aims to support team members through tough patches. “‘Wave the white flag day’ is a way of saying ‘I am not firing on all cylinders today’,” she says. “If you can do my garden duty that would be amazing, and I can curl up in the book corner with the children. Obviously,” she adds, “You can only wave the flag so many times.”

When team members feel supported it’s easier to work around staffing problems. “It’s about being open and transparent,” Hearne explains. “It isn’t that I don’t want you to go to an appointment, but that day I already have two people off – can you change the date?”

Forward planning also makes things simpler. “I have already started planning the rotas for spring 2024, as I’ve got two members of staff off on maternity leave and one is due to go in May,” she says. “Otherwise you can end up in a situation where you have to say no to everything because you are so stretched.”

A workplace with a strong staff wellbeing policy may have already taken some of the steps needed to support those with fertility issues. Zoe Short, people manager at Tops Day Nurseries, says: “Our commitment to mental health and wellbeing includes dedicated mental health representatives, company-wide mental health first aiders, a 24-hour telephone counselling service, and a Wellbeing Action Plan. While these resources are not specific to IVF, pregnancy or miscarriage, they are available to provide support throughout these challenging times.”

However, some groups have begun to offer specific benefits around fertility. Busy Bees employees undergoing fertility treatment are given two paid days off during each treatment cycle, and flexible unpaid leave following this. Busy Bees also offers paid parental bereavement leave of at least four weeks and paid leave following a miscarriage.

Kids Planet also offers fertility benefits, including eight days fertility leave a year on full pay, to allow employees to undergo treatment, attend appointments and recover from treatment. Male employees are also able to take paid fertility leave while their partner is undergoing treatment.

With fertility problems affecting one in six people in the UK, it is almost inevitable that managers will be required to support a team member at some point. Putting policies in place before that should give colleagues the confidence to confide in managers, rather than try to hide their journey, with benefits all round.

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