Managing IVF in the workplace
Should I tell my employer?
There is no specific policy for employers around managing an employee undergoing fertility treatment. Because of this, managers are often working in the dark. They may not have come across anyone going through this process and may not be sure how to support their employee effectively. If they haven’t been through the process themselves, or know someone who has, they may not be aware what is involved. There may also be differences between men and women needing support through this process. However, most managers are supportive and want to help as much as they can.
I was a manager for someone going through the IVF process. My team member (TM) was very open and honest with me about her journey, which was a huge relief for me as I was keen to support in any way I could. I also think this honesty and openness helped to build some trust and deepened the relationship between me and my TM. I asked lots of questions and checked in with her regularly to see how she was feeling. The information she gave me helped me to understand and contextualise any changes in behaviour and gave me the understanding I needed to help in the best way possible. She was nervous at first about how it might be received but was pleased that she took the leap of faith.
At first I was surprised by the number of appointments you need to attend during a cycle, plus time off after egg collection. This is for each cycle so if you need more than one it really is helpful for managers to be aware. In the first cycle my TM took time off after the embryo transfer but decided she didn’t need this the second time round. Having the knowledge and understanding of her journey and requirements was a huge help for planning, and to make sure I could make reasonable adjustments for my TM to ensure she wasn’t put at any risk through heavy lifting, travelling etc.
The balancing act
Balancing treatment and your livelihood can be tricky, not even mentioning fitting in general life and family commitments so I worked on a plan with my TM, looking at what she needed, and what the process required. My hands as a manager were tied by HR policy so there were some things I couldn’t allow even though I personally wanted to but, overall, we came up with a plan my TM was happy with. She used a mix of some flexi time and annual leave, mainly for the long travelling time involved, and I used my discretion for some things too. There may be some things that a manager may struggle to allow but, on the whole, they will try to do what they can.
The emotional effects of IVF treatment were hard to cope with and my TM had not appreciated how much this may affect her. I supported her during these times by releasing some workload and we discussed counselling that could be accessed through work. She was so bloated at times because of the meds that people kept asking if she was pregnant, which was obviously difficult. She had pains after the procedures too so she brought in a hot water bottle and we ensured she had regular breaks or that she could work from home where required.
Due to the location of her clinic, and the fact she couldn’t drive, my TM had to leave her house at 5am to get to early morning appointments and then make her way 2-3 hours back to work! She was therefore out of the office for a short appointment for about half a day and was very tired. Once I found this out, I worked with her to arrange for her to work from home as much as we could on appointment days to minimise the travelling and impact on her work and health.
Ease the stress where you can
Given my experience of managing someone with infertility, and now having personal experience too, I would always advise being open and honest with your manager. If they respond negatively or are unsupportive then that is on them, not you. Most managers will want to help and will respect you for bringing it up so that they can plan and work with you to find the best solution.
I understand that it’s difficult for some people though and there is a risk that managers may not understand, be unsupportive and that people are concerned their career prospects may be damaged. My TM felt the same at first but felt better sharing as it was an added stress for her to be very guarded and having to pretend she was ok when she was having a bad day or feeling ill. Finding ways to ensure the time off was approved was a stress she didn’t need either so it was a relief to have it out in the open. I am very grateful she trusted me enough with this information and that I could show my support for her through her journey. I would hope that most managers would feel the same way.
What if my employer is not supportive?
I welcomed and respected the information my TM gave me but some people are, unfortunately, not necessarily supportive. If you’re not lucky enough to feel that you can tell your manager, or they are not supportive, it’s useful to be aware of the ACAS guidelines around fertility treatment.
The Fertility Network UK is doing lots of work on this through their new campaign Fertility in the Workplace (FITW) where you can find more information.
It’s also important to know you don’t have to tell your manager, you are not obliged to do so. It’s whatever is best for you. Especially if it’s not a problem for you to take leave and flexi time and be out of the office for appointments regularly. If it’s your manager that is an issue, you might find it helpful to talk to someone in another department for advice/ideas, or speak to HR about the options and support available.
Set yourself up for success
One thing that was important for me is that my TM came to me prepared with solutions, not just problems, which was a big part of making it a positive journey for both of us. If your manager is new to all of this, they will need help in understanding and finding the most appropriate solutions. Any preparation you can do here would be very helpful. You might even find it useful to prepare a handout for your manager explaining what’s required and practice what you want to say, and how you want to say it.
I am by no means an expert and this is only my personal opinion. Ultimately have to make the right decisions for you. There is no right or wrong answer, but here are some tips that you might find helpful:
- Give your manager as much of a heads up as possible and be as open and honest as possible (as much as you feel comfortable with of course) – develop a plan with potential solutions before you meet with your boss, using considerations in points 2, 3 and 4 to help you formulate this. E.g. how you might make up lost time, change in work patterns, working from home etc.
- Be clear about what the process will entail and what you need, including: the possible effects, drugs, appointments, ET and egg collection requirements etc and timescales. Find out exactly what your treatment plan involves. You might need to ask for adjustments to your job if you have a very physical job or need to travel a lot, especially overseas. Find out what is needed from you too, like letters from the clinic to prove you had an appointment, for example.
- Plan for the worst scenario in terms of time and expectations so that, if things aren’t as bad as you thought they might be, your employer benefits by getting more time than expected from you. You know yourself – some people bounce back quickly and can deal with emotional stress well, others take more time to recover both physically and mentally so factor in what you think you’ll need. Put yourself first.
- Do your research on your employer’s sickness, flexi and changes to working hours policies as well as ACAS guidelines so you can be prepared. You do not have a legal responsibility to tell your employer so it’s up to you how much you would like to disclose.
- You might find it helpful to sketch out what you’d like to say before you meet with your manager to make sure you cover all the key points you want to say, and that you present it in a way you’re happy with.
- Keep your manager up to date throughout the process – this helps build trust and gives your manager an opportunity to find cover or put in place any support required such as amending your duties.
- Keep a track of appointments/time off and flexi/leave taken and send updates to your manager at agreed intervals. Again this helps to build trust and helps your manager with the HR paperwork side of things.
- Follow up any meetings in writing to ensure agreements with your manager are documented and that there is no confusion later down the line. You or your manager may choose to do this. You must both agree. I emailed my TM with notes from our update meetings and she replied to say whether she agreed, or if she wanted me to make any changes.
- Look for online support through IVF communities like IVF Babble etc. These are like-minded people going through the same struggles so they may have hints and tips and can provide you with support when you need it.
- Make your workspace as comfortable as possible – you might need a hot water bottle, regular breaks from your desk, different workwear to help deal with the physical discomforts. This is a time you really need to be kind to yourself.