In the UK, roughly one in six couples (or 3.5 million people) are affected by infertility.
Unlike ante-natal appointments once pregnant, employers are not currently required to provide paid or unpaid time off to enable employees to attend medical appointments for fertility treatments. In June of this year, Nickie Aiken (MP for the Cities of London and Westminster) introduced a Private Members’ Bill – Fertility Treatment (Employment Rights) Bill (the Bill) – aimed at creating a right to such provision for employees. To complement this Bill, even more recently, Ms Aiken launched the Fertility Workplace Pledge (the Pledge), to which companies such as NatWest Group and Channel 4 have already signed up. In this article, we take a closer look at the various steps recommended by the Pledge that employers can take to improve awareness of infertility and to support employees facing such difficulties.
Infertility: the experience
Individuals struggling with infertility face various strains inside and outside the workplace. These include financial pressures, as access to NHS funding for fertility treatments is by no means guaranteed; emotional and physical pressures, as they or their partner are put through often intense and gruelling medical treatments; and professional burdens as they struggle to balance this issue, which is often still considered taboo, with the demands of their professional life.
Infertility: the law
Currently, employees undergoing fertility treatment, especially in vitro fertilisation (IVF) treatment, benefit from the same pregnancy and maternity rights as non-IVF pregnancies. If an employer knows their employee has undergone the final stage of the IVF process – known as the “embryo transfer” – the employee is protected against unfair dismissal and unfair treatment related to that possible pregnancy. Further, a person who undergoes IVF but does not become pregnant is still protected against pregnancy discrimination for the two-week period following the unsuccessful treatment.
While the existing protection is helpful to those dealing with infertility, there are clear gaps. As already stated, there is no legal obligation to provide time off to employees for the purpose of attending fertility appointments. Fertility treatments are often categorised as “elective medical procedures” which do not qualify for paid or unpaid leave in most workplace policies. This often forces employees to choose between missing time at work (and the associated financial loss) or missing the appointment of a partner undergoing treatment. Due to these pressures, more than one third of those undergoing fertility treatments have considered quitting their job.
Ms Aiken introduced the Bill to Parliament this summer in response to these issues. It is envisaged that if the Bill becomes law it would require employers to accommodate employees’ fertility-treatment-related commitments by way of paid or unpaid leave. This would help to alleviate some of the burden experienced by these employees, while improving workplace awareness and recognition of the challenges faced by those experiencing infertility.
Infertility: the Pledge
From a non-statutory perspective, Ms Aiken has launched the Pledge to encourage employers to commit to:
- Introducing accessible information, including a workplace fertility policy.
This asks employers to consider implementing procedures and guidance related to topics such as fertility leave and fertility-related sickness absence. Internal as well as external emotional support, such as therapy and guidance, should also be clearly signposted.
Employers with such policies already in place are encouraged to review and update them. Whether introducing or updating such policies, employers should be sensitive to practices that could upset those struggling to conceive, such as including fertility policies within a catch-all pregnancy and maternity policy.
- Raising workplace awareness of infertility by appointing a Fertility Ambassador, tasked with the remit of encouraging open conversations and clearly signposting internal support.
Written policies are of little use in a workplace that does not genuinely encourage open dialogue. Fertility Ambassadors can play a key role in encouraging employees to discuss the impact of these issues in the workplace and can help with initiatives such as infertility awareness days or panel discussions. As remarked by Fertility Matters at Work, an organisation which seeks to raise awareness of fertility issues in the workplace, panel discussions have “a domino effect of employees all saying the words ‘me too’ and wanting to share their story. Showing this conversation is not a taboo is a powerful way of giving permission to others to speak”.
- Providing appropriate training to line managers to ensure they understand the lived realities of employees dealing with infertility.
A recent study conducted by Manchester Metropolitan University revealed that employees experiencing infertility regarded their managers as especially “crucial to the provision of appropriate support”. Therefore, it is important for employers to educate managers on infertility and its associated challenges and to equip them with the tools to create a safe environment in which employees feel comfortable discussing such an inherently personal topic.
- Encouraging staff to make flexible working requests to access treatments and appointments, and accepting such requests where made.
Recent statistics show more than 80% of employees found it easier to accommodate fertility-related appointments and treatments while working from home. Instead of waiting for the Bill to be passed, especially in businesses where working from home is less practical, employers could encourage and accept flexible work requests related to fertility treatments or, even better, promote policies of paid or unpaid leave for fertility appointments and treatments.
The above recommendations are by no means an exhaustive list. Further possible measures include providing financial support to enable employees to access treatment by way of “fertility loans”, or designating private spaces at work where employees can carry out their treatments and take private phone calls. What is crucial is that employers recognise infertility as an issue that can impact all aspects of an employee’s life. Implementing steps to improve workplace awareness and support related to infertility is likely not only to improve a business’s workplace culture but mark them as a progressive and attractive employer both for existing employees and potential candidates.