Top 10 Tips for managing and supporting an employee having fertility treatment

As a manager you often are called upon to fulfil many roles – discipliner, counsellor, parent, friend, leader, spokesperson….the list goes on. How many are you actually equipped for? The type of problems you are presented with can be surprising and overwhelming. Employees now share more than they ever did before about their personal problems as life and work gets ever more intermingled. You will be asked for counsel, understanding and support on mental health problems, interpersonal issues, bereavement, illness, maternity and paternity issues and the topic of this blog – fertility issues.

Research shows having a supportive fertility attitude in the workplace policy is good for business and employees – levels of distress associated with fertility treatment are reduced and employees are more likely to be productive and remain in work. In a recent study 29% of women surveyed had to resign from their jobs due to the difficulty working through fertility treatments. However, it’s a topic that can make both the employee and the manager extremely uncomfortable, leading to poor communication and understanding on both parts.

I can testify to the difference a supportive workplace can make and as a HR Professional, Manager and an Infertility Survivor, I am well placed to be able to advise on this topic.

Let me give you a short synopsis of my journey. During my fertility struggles in my previous company I had two male managers. Maybe it will be surprising to you that it was male bosses that gave me more support than I would have even thought of asking for. No appointment was a problem, no time off was an issue. When, on one cycle my immune system was being suppressed, my boss wouldn’t hear of me coming into the office and insisted on home working for that month. When I finally got pregnant, I had severe hyperemesis gravidarum (sickness) that required some time in hospital. I felt terrible as I had hoped I would be fighting fit and could pay them back for their support during my pregnancy, but that was not to be. Regardless, they continued to support over and above any of my expectations.

What did they get in return for all this support? I was loyal, committed, worked at any time of the night, day or weekend that I was well enough. I kept growing my knowledge, experience and responsibility.  I was open with them, so that they always knew what to expect, shared detail to the level that both of us were comfortable with. After every failed IVF attempt, I threw myself into work, as I love my job and it was a huge source of mental comfort.

I truly believe that without their support Sophie (my daughter) wouldn’t be here. It gave me the energy to do two extra IVF cycles, that if I was working in a more difficult environment I may not have done.

As a manager, what do you need to know?

  1. Your instant reaction to an employee telling you their difficulties is important. They will read volumes into that reaction and it may steer the course for future openness from.
  2. Read up on IVF and Fertility and educate yourself, for example asking an employee to change the date or the time of an appointment can cause huge stress. Things are delicately timed with IVF. It can be a desperate situation if you can’t get time off work to attend the appointments at the right time. Needing to justify time, or having to explain too much detail is a dreadful for an IVF patient.
  3. Keep it confidential. This is extremely private, and a lot of women really struggle with telling a soul. If you are taken into their confidence, understand that this is an honour and something the employee may have struggled with for months, unsure if telling you would be the right thing or the nail in the coffin of their career.
  4. Don’t go looking for policies or procedures to help you, it’s likely that there will be none available. Don’t worry that other employees will look for the same flexibility and time off, infertility is a silent, devastating curse that can’t be compared and “made fair”. Just assure them that if they had something as equally devastating in their lives you would support them equally or tell them to mind their own business!
  5. Allow the employee sick days for any procedures and flexi time for appointments. My bosses were great about allowing me to make up the time. Also, nowadays we can work from anywhere. Waiting rooms in clinics are just as good for sending email and working on Power Points than anywhere else!
  6. Your HR team should be informed, with a clear request to support both the employee and their manager. Be clear what support will look like for you on this topic, encourage the employee to be clear too. We make far too many assumptions when we are dealing with sensitive topics, many of which turn out not to be true.
  7. Understand that a person undergoing IVF has lots of guilt and shame triggers. Just some are: having to take time off, running out of holiday and sick days, uncertainty as to how they are being perceived in work, worrying if it will cause issues with promotions, money worries (IVF is VERY expensive), trying to act normal as colleagues get pregnant, worries about invasive procedures and treatments, waves of bad news to deal with. Check out my next blog on what not to say to IVF patients!
  8. Know that you can still deal with underperformance and behavioural issues. Make your expectations clear and ask how you can support the employee, when they are well enough to work, to ensure their quality and attitude are up to the required standard. Don’t look for excellence, look for good enough during this time.
  9. Instead of only looking at the downsides of having an employee who is undergoing fertility treatment, look at the benefits. You won’t have a “surprise” pregnancy on your team, you will have lots of notice that you may need to plan for a successor for this role. Think about all the soft skills you will learn dealing with this very sensitive topic that you can then apply to many other situations. Treating an employee well pays back dividends in your reputation as a manager, their loyalty and commitment will know no ends.
  10. Celebrate the wins with your employee! Its not all bad news and hopefully you get to help make a baby!

The great news is that some companies are now providing fertility support including payment for fertility treatment. Some companies require you to provide proof of infertility, some don’t – which is great for LGBTQ and single parents. This support carries a bigger message than a financial one – it suggests that it is ok to talk about your infertility and that you will receive emotional a well as financial support from these companies.

Finally, if you are still struggling with how to deal with this topic, let me ask you this. Do you have children? Imagine that you don’t have them. What would you do to bring those very children into the world? Now, apply those feelings to the support and empathy you give to your infertile employees.

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