Supporting employees with their wellbeing is not always easy. Awareness of stress and depression has led to mental wellbeing programmes being implemented widely, and education around them has helped managers and colleagues to identify when they might need to constructively intervene and support an employee, or signpost them to external services. Other wellbeing or health support issues are naturally captured – pregnancy manifests physically, serious illness requires time off to attend medical appointments, and so on.
But there are wellbeing issues that are invisible and which, for all sorts of reasons, are hidden – deliberately or otherwise – from colleagues.
What is infertility and what causes it?
Infertility is only medically diagnosed after a full year of unprotected sex. Put another way, it is a condition that is chronic, rather than episodic. It can be caused by both physical health issues (ovarian cysts, low sperm count, serious illness such as cancer etc.) and mental health factors, such as stress and anxiety.
The personal impact of infertility
Infertility is an issue that affects more people than we might imagine. According to the National Institute for Health Care and Excellence (NICE), 1 in 7 heterosexual couples are infertile. Of these, 90% have reported feeling depressed, and a staggering 43% admitted to feeling suicidal.
People living with infertility may experience:
- Stress & Anxiety
Infertility often creates damaging rifts between couples. And many people who struggle to conceive report that they feel ‘defective’ or ‘broken’ because social conventions create a sense that conceiving a child is ‘normal’ and ‘natural’, and that being unable to do this ‘simple’ job is abnormal.
The financial impact of infertility
Fertility treatment is extremely expensive and there are now few circumstances in which this treatment is available through the NHS. If a member of your staff is undergoing fertility treatment, then there is every likelihood that he or she is experiencing some degree of financial pressure or hardship, which adds to the overall stress and anxiety they may feel.
The impact of infertility in and on the workplace
Someone living with infertility – whether their own or their partner’s – is likely to feel a heavy emotional burden, and this, allied to the secrecy that often surrounds it, creates extreme pressure that impacts on their emotional and physical health and may ultimately compromise their performance and results at work.
For the organisation itself, there are practical and operational realities to consider, such as time off to attend fertility appointments, medical routines that may have to be followed during their working day that require privacy (e.g., self-administering hormone injections), and other special requirements, such as access to a sterile and private refrigerator.
Sexuality – the financial inequality of same sex parenting
The issue of infertility for same sex couples trying to start a family is starker than for most.
Currently the NHS will only fund access to IVF for women who have been unable to conceive after two years of unprotected intercourse or 12 cycles of artificial insemination, six of which must have been by intrauterine insemination (IUI).
For those who unsuccessfully go through artificial insemination, the cost of private IVF treatment can be as high as £25,000 – putting the prospect of starting a family well beyond the financial reach of many same sex couples.
Social and religious impact of infertility
In some cases, a colleague’s religious or cultural background may contribute further to the pressure they feel. In some cases, this may be because family members or friends may disapprove of fertility treatment, or it may be that the individual’s spiritual or religious beliefs prevent them from either having treatment or, if they do, talking about it.
In a workplace environment an employee dealing with fertility issues may feel excluded or may become angry or upset when faced with a colleague announcing a pregnancy or birth. It is not unusual for people experiencing fertility issues to become detached from the social dynamic of the workplace, and this can in many cases generate feelings of further isolation.
Why do many workers hide their infertility issues from colleagues?
NICE believe that half of all workers who struggle with infertility issues hide their problems from their colleagues and managers.
This reluctance to discuss infertility may stem from feelings of shame or guilt. It may also be a result of emotional fatigue – they just don’t want to have to have yet another conversation about an issue that they are probably thinking about 24/7. Or perhaps they just don’t want to be seen or treated as being in some way ‘different’.
But many professionals also say they don’t raise the issue of infertility because they worry it may impede their career prospects.
What can your organisation do to support staff going through fertility treatment
There are a number of steps you can take to ensure your organisation is moving in the right direction on the issue of infertility.
- Step 1 – make infertility a clear and obvious part of your employee wellbeing strategy. This demonstrates your commitment and encourages your staff to discuss their difficulties with you because they trust you to be empathetic and supportive
- Step 2 – ensure everyone with a responsibility for staff wellbeing has access to training and learning tools that ensure they understand the fertility journey and are able to offer meaningful support
- Step 3 – where you are supporting a colleague through fertility treatment, ensure relevant managers understand and plan for the operational impact – that means taking a flexible approach to the individual’s working pattern, making a dedicated and safe space available for self-care where necessary, facilitating access to counselling if requested or appropriate, ensuring regular care conversations are held to assess the nature and relevance of the support being offered
Fertility treatments can be a huge financial cost to your employees. Depending on the size of your organisation you might have the resources to offer financial support or help colleagues access external specialist advice either from an independent financial adviser, or from a specialist charity.
Infertility is hard on everyone who is affected by it. Your organisational policies and procedures should recognise and reflect this.
Employee support programmes that are well thought through and which are seen to seek a balance that values your colleague will always result in happier, more productive, and loyal people and build operational success.
If you’d like to know how Convergent can help you to build a support programme that fits your business, please get in touch – we’d love to hear from you.