Fertility treatment is a journey filled with countless medical appointments, blood tests, procedures and follow-ups, which can be difficult to keep to yourself, especially if you work full time.
So how do you start the conversation with your manager or boss that you’re trying to conceive, and you need a little leeway?
An experienced human resources leader and Virtus Health group HR advisor, David Rossiter has had many conversations in the workplace with employees who are in the throes of IVF. He describes going for fertility treatment as “a deeply personal process that cannot be likened to any other life experience”.
“The closest comparison I can recall is supporting a single parent through an adoption process. It’s not the same as fertility treatment – but they are both an emotional rollercoaster,” he says.
Before discussing fertility treatment or any personal matter with your employer, Rossiter says it’s crucial that you tune into the culture of your workplace. For instance: is it an organisation that values output and professionalism at all costs, or do they value individual employees as ‘a whole person’?
“If your business cares about you as a whole person, then they should be 100% clear that they demonstrate this in all that they do for all employees – that it’s the culture of the business,” he says.
“That culture is the key to supporting staffing going through fertility treatment in that the culture needs to be such that an employee feels safe to tell the truth about having to come in a little late or leave a little early for medical appointments. When an attempt fails to result in a pregnancy, the employee needs to know that they are supported; they might have a best friend at work and know that it’s okay for them to go for a walk to relax and share some tears. The sometimes forgotten part of this support process is the emotions of the [fertility patient’s] partner, and their needs in their workplace as well.”
How to discuss fertility treatment with your work
Judith Krause, fertility counsellor and clinical social worker at IVFAustralia, works with people every day who are on this “emotional rollercoaster” of fertility treatment.
“With involuntary childlessness, it can be seen as a ‘life crisis’ that has the potential to threaten emotional stability. Many people have spent years trying not to get pregnant, so they assume that when they are ready, it will just happen; we’re used to a high level of control in our lives and so not being able to control something that is so meaningful is very difficult,” she says.
When they then begin the process, “Clients including heterosexual couples, single women, same sex couples and donors (sperm, egg and embryo), along with their partners, may have difficulty getting time off work.”
Infertility and associated ongoing treatments can be a private experience of silent grief and fear, and one that is difficult to discuss, Krause adds.
“It can be an invisible loss – with no baby – and no acknowledgement by others regarding the potential chronic sorrow or acute grief. Some will experience anticipated grief and in some way try to prepare themselves,” she says.
“However, it may be necessary to engage in a workplace conversation to discuss the potential impact on our work. Open communication with a trusted person within the workplace is ideal, perhaps as an ongoing spokesperson for you as needed.”
Sharing our personal stories, especially a journey of infertility, within a workplace setting can feel vulnerable. However, it may help alleviate perceived pressures and fears, and thereby reduce your stress levels as you feel more supported.
“If we initially choose to share our situation openly, it may become problematic as time and subsequent treatments each bring multiple and varied questions from many people,” Krause advises.
“So, you may find that nominating a trusted person within your workplace, such as your manager or an HR representative, to filter caring enquiries makes it easier [for you to] not to have to repeat your story many times a day. Use your judgement about who to share with, and be sure to request confidentiality.”
“Having that ‘go to’ person you can phone and say, ‘I’m going to be late in today’ without having to explain every time can be very helpful,” Krause adds.
“For those who don’t want anybody in their workplace to know about their fertility treatment, it can be helpful to say you have medical or personal appointments. It may be difficult to completely separate our personal and professional lives during fertility treatments, and some may choose never to share their story with work colleagues, though the stress from retaining silence and finding excuses for the necessary medical appointments may be more stressful than sharing your story with a trusted person.”
When coping with an infertility diagnosis, it can feel as if so much is beyond your control, Krause adds – but it is important to remember that what we can control is our attitude and response to treatments, and to the comments of others.
“When speaking with colleagues, be as open and honest as your comfort allows,” she says.
“Being able to clearly explain your needs and having some ideas on how to lessen the impact on your workplace may be helpful to a professional and productive discussion when speaking with your boss.”
When should you consider fertility treatment?
Associate Professor Peter Illingworth, Medical Director of IVFAustralia, says most couples will fall pregnant within a year, though it can be very variable.
“The three main factors that impact fertility involve age, length of trying, and whether the woman has ever been pregnant before,” he shares.
“For instance, a 30-year-old woman who has had a baby before and has only been trying for three months will have a high chance of getting pregnant soon, while another extreme is 42-year-old woman who has been trying for three years and has never been pregnant; she faces a different struggle to conceive.”
For those couples who are going through (or preparing to start) IVF and other types of fertility treatment at the moment, Professor Illingworth suggests that you do your best to ignore the well-meaning advice from family and friends – especially those annoying suggestions that you ‘just need to relax’.
“Infertility is very stressful, but stress has relatively little impact on a woman’s chance of conceiving. It’s an old wives tale to take a ‘cruise’ as the answer,” he says.
“Lifestyle factors also have less effect than commonly assumed on a woman’s chance of conceiving. It’s actually ok to be a little bigger. However, your general health is important too and you should still exercise regularly, limit your sugar intake and, if you smoke, do whatever you can to quit. The important thing is aim to be healthy to be a healthy mum.”
If you decide to tell your boss, how do you raise it?
You need to trust your relationship with him or her. You should approach them in private and explain what is going on. You will probably be surprised at how supportive they are and that they are likely to feel flattered that you have taken them into their confidence with such a sensitive matter. You should go through the time commitments involved. Remember that these are usually not too bad in terms of the absolute time involved as clinics normally run most of the monitoring visits early in the morning to allow our patients to get to work on time.
We normally encourage our patients not to take time off work as all that happens is our patients sit at home, thinking about their ovaries and their uterus all day and becoming even more stressed. The key thing is to ensure that you don’t have any deadlines clashing with critical points of the IVF and this may mean planning in association with your boss to ensure that you’re not planning an IVF cycle at a particularly critical time for your business.
Your boss should be aware that you may be a little late to arrive some mornings and that you may need to leave meetings to take phone calls but, otherwise you will continue to be a valuable and hardworking member of your team.
If you decide that your IVF is a private matter for you, you should look at what IVF involves and plan, as far as you can, to minimise the disruption to your professional life. At our clinics, we are very happy to provide our patients with medical certificates to cover the defined times of medical treatment without specifying the nature of the problem.
If you have been trying to conceive for 12 months or more without success (or six months if you are over 35), it’s well worth consulting a fertility specialist. As members of Virtus Health, IVFAustralia, Melbourne IVF, and Queensland Fertility Group create more babies than anyone else. With over 100 of the world’s leading fertility specialists, they help more than 5,000 couples and single women achieve their dreams of a family each year.