Heartbreak, hormones and hope – Fertility in the workplace

Earlier this year, I joined forces with Fertility Network UK for their Fertility in the Workplace initiative; a campaign aiming to support both employees and employers whilst individuals are working and undergoing fertility treatments. During Fertility Awareness Week, FNUK are once again highlighting the utter importance of creating fair and compassionate employment practices for anyone undergoing fertility treatments. Using my voice, alongside quotes from those currently juggling work and IVF, here’s why a fertility in the workplace policy is imperative.

“It was the most stressful period of my life and without the support of my employer, it would have made everything more difficult. This would have impacted massively on my already deteriorated mental health.”

IVF is a full-time job. The appointments are endless and if it’s not the appointments, it’s the reams of paperwork. If it’s not the paperwork, it’s the procedures. Then there’s the medicating, the scans, the blood tests, the research, the injecting. And if it’s none of the above, it’s the emotional trauma, which is always present. There is no respite. There is no escape. It’s an all-consuming, around the clock feat.

It’s also incredibly expensive.

With the NHS, drastically, reducing funding for infertile couples many are left to privately finance the overwhelming cost of treatments. This means that despite the full-time nature IVF occupies, taking unpaid time out or stopping work isn’t an option for the majority. For those of us who are unable to conceive naturally, financial affluence is wrongly becoming a pre-requisite for procreation.

Although there is no statutory right to time off, many employers are now creating policies to protect staff and provide additional assistance during the gruelling process. Infertility is real. It is a disease and with 3.5 million people affected by it in the UK, there is no excuse for an absence of support or lack of sensitivity within the workplace.

“From someone who has worked with a workplace policy it makes all the difference as it takes away a huge amount of stress.”

Before being infertile became my reality, I had a hugely different opinion of what exactly IVF and fertility treatments were. I’d seen films, I’d read books, and it all seemed a rather amusing foray into a world full of hilarious dining out anecdotes. And whilst infertility does indeed hold its own humour, nothing prepared me for the burdens I’d carry and the brutality I’d experience.

Ask anyone and they’ll probably know a little about in vitro fertilisation, how a baby is, miraculously, created in a petri dish and how a man gets intimate with a cup. What most individuals won’t realise is that to get to the petri-dish point there has been endless heartbreak, hormones and hope. There’s been guilt and grief, physical invasions and an all-encompassing sadness. Five out of six couples are lucky enough to never need assisted reproduction yet, for the one left over, medical science provides our only option.

And so we embark upon the whirlwind which is IVF, whilst trying to continue as normal in a life which is anything but the “norm”.

The hormones make us feel strange and bloated and downright ill. It wasn’t uncommon for me to pass out on my commute to work, when I was injecting. They’re sore too; I had bruises and welts on my tummy and my bottom, and constant migraines. Treatment also comes with a punishing timetable involving scans and blood tests every other day, timed injections and a big dose of the unpredictable. Scheduled Egg Collections happen early or late, embryos may be transferred on day three to day five, and when waiting for endometrial linings to thicken, the body doesn’t play fair. I discovered that IVF is an untameable force. It can’t be controlled or organised and there are so many unexpected situations which arise, per cycle, that maintaining a job becomes increasingly difficult, intensely stressful and ultimately unrealistic.

“Ignorance about treatment can lead to stress. These feelings are increased if HR teams aren’t aware of how impactful infertility is on the health of employees.”

“Then treatment might fail and, again, we’re expected to simply carry on as we were. In reality, we’re left wondering how we’ll find the strength to be ourselves once more. We’re mourning and attempting to make sense of a grievous life changing event.

Coping in a workplace full of the fertile masses becomes challenging too. The regular baby showers, pregnancy announcements or new-born visits can feel like a personal attack, a public recognition of failure, and leave us sitting at our desks harbouring that toxic cocktail of shame, grief and desire. Whilst babies are indeed a celebration, commemorating them is never going to be easy for those who live with infertility.

The importance of understanding in the workplace is crucial. I was fortunate that not only was I able to work flexibly, I was also offered a wonderfully high level of emotional support and compassion, which I couldn’t have continued without. Despite doubting my own confidence and commitment, I was always left feeling valued and, during a time when self-worth is at an all-time low; proud. However, not everyone going through IVF will have even told family or friends, let alone colleagues, managers and HR. It can feel embarrassing, overly personal and ostracising, especially where no policy is in place.

“It would help to have a policy in place because it would make me feel they recognise infertility as a medical problem, and they recognise the physical and emotional challenges it brings. It would also help to make conversations about infertility possible.”

No one ever imagines the need for needles and hormones and a whole host of additional people, in order to do something which is meant to be private and romantic and full of the joys of spring. I still remember the beautiful moment my husband and I decided to start our family, in the life before infertility it was a wondrous secret the two of us carried, full of excitement and hope. Which is how it should be, yet the reality is that dreams can turn to dust and secrets can turn sour.

I’d ask you to spare a thought for those co-workers facing infertility, pumping themselves full of hormones, undergoing undignified and unpleasant procedures. Those nursing heartache and anguish because they may never be able to have a desperately longed for child or create a much-wanted sibling. All under the façade that everything is okay.

When it’s not.

“My manager always said to me “tell us what you need.” They always worked around my appointments for me. Following my miscarriage, I received in-house counselling. They have also now referred me to an in-house complementary therapist for treatments and relaxation advice leading up to this round of IVF.”

Voicing infertility out loud is frightening and isolating. It’s not an easy subject to raise or discuss and asking for time off can feel completely impossible. It’s imperative that the proper level of support is in place, and that’s why a fertility in the workplace policy is invaluable. A formal arrangement can help infertility feel less of a taboo, IVF less fearsome to accept and reduce the additional worries produced by a treatment, which is already exhausting, strenuous and merciless. It educates, manages expectations and recognises the whole person; a person who is desperate to remain professional but is living under circumstances which are hard for even them to find the courage to comprehend.

Fertility Network UK’s Fertility Awareness Week runs from October 28th – November 3rd and is aiming to spread awareness of fertility issues to a wider audience. It’s time to put a spotlight on infertility. It is a real issue and one that matters.

Bio
Caro Townsend is a writer, survivor and advocate of all things infertility. After discovering medical science was required to have a family, Caro became fully ensconced in the world of fertility treatments. Multiple ICSI cycles, a miscarriage and an ectopic pregnancy later, she finally became a parent. Caro is the creator of one of 2018 and 2019’s top ten UK fertility blogs and her award nominated, The Cuckoo Mama, is an honest, open and compassionate account of her journey to parenthood and beyond. In between writing, she spends her time walking the dog, winging motherhood and working to break the silence which surrounds infertility and miscarriage. You can read Caro’s blog at www.thecuckoomama.co.uk