Why fertility support is the next big workplace issue

As more employees open up about their struggles with infertility, Natalie Silverman explains how employers can support different fertility journeys in the workplace.

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Infertility affects a huge number of working people. Whatever size your organisation may be, it’s likely that multiple workers will struggle with it during their lifetime, hurting employee health and wellbeing.

The effects are hidden in plain sight. One in six people are affected globally by infertility issues, but associated treatment is still shrouded in taboo and stigma. A staggering statistic from Fertility Network UK reveals that over 90% of respondents feel depressed after undergoing treatment.

Thousands have suffered in silence, impacting their work and livelihoods. That includes myself and my two co-founders. As three female co-founders all with lived experience of navigating fertility treatment to have our families, whilst working, we all struggled with a lack of support.

Together, we founded Fertility Matters at Work CIC from a belief that anyone on a challenging path to parenthood deserves appropriate help and encouragement, regardless of the business size.

We set about creating better support for companies to help those dealing with this issue, and ensure people feel understood when they struggle to grow their family.

Why fertility matters for SMEs

At FMW, we often hear from those employed at SMEs that they struggle to find work cover to take time off for fertility treatment. Workers say there are no known policies to support them, forcing them to keep their personal struggles a secret.

Often, such secrecy means that appointments are hidden with unplanned sickness absence, which can have a greater impact on a business. In 2020, we conducted research to further our insights. Following an employee survey, we found that 36% of people going through fertility treatment consider leaving their jobs, driving up staff turnover.

We also learnt of reduced employee engagement levels. 61% of people we surveyed said they did not feel comfortable talking to their employer about their fertility struggles, highlighting key impacts on productivity.

The gender divide here cannot be ignored. At FMW, we carried out a snap poll on our Instagram page, where we asked about the impact infertility had on working lives.

All respondents were women, who are predominantly impacted by the nature of treatment, the motherhood penalty, and the gender pay gap. A staggering 93% said that their career had been impacted in some way by their struggle to bring home a baby.

Imagine the talent and output that is being lost due to this disparity. Imagine the benefits that your businesses could reap if you took steps to hold onto the good people who help the company succeed.

What can you do?

As a small business, there can be a greater sense of overwhelm when it comes to providing support for employees undergoing fertility treatment.

With smaller headcounts, tightened reduced cash flow, greater economic insecurity and often without specialist HR support or process in place, SMEs face specific challenges when supporting employees with fertility issues.

In June 2023 we launched our ‘Fertility Friendly Essentials' package for SMEs, knowing that this is key to ensure that our mission statement is met – and ensure that everyone going through fertility treatment is supported in the workplace whilst trying to build their family.

The solution provides access to FMAW’s core support, guidance, education and awareness raising tools including the innovative digital e-learning platform, without the cost or the resource investment. It has everything an organisation might need to provide credible awareness raising, education and policy writing on this topic.

Our ambition is to help the SMEs we work with to become more fertility friendly. We want to ensure that every organisation either has a policy or guidance in place to support people going through fertility treatment and pregnancy loss.

Our hope is that, if we can help SMEs to become more supportive of life events such as fertility challenges, we can help them to become more innovative, more productive, and more profitable.

A flexible approach to fertility

With infertility being such a sensitive and diverse topic, SMEs may worry about getting it wrong, especially without specialist support. Inclusivity is key to this topic and so it's important to be aware of the wide impact this issue can have on a diverse group of people.

Flexible working arrangements, and planned absences for medical appointments based on hours rather than days, could reduce the business impact by enabling employees to go through treatment and remain in work, with minimal impact to the business.

With employees soon having the right to request flexible working from day one, it is important that fertility treatment is understood and that managers are able to use tools such as this to support the employee and manage workloads. 

Such policies also serve to foster an organisational culture of transparency and respect. Rejecting the stigma attached to fertility issues, they help staff feel comfortable and supported in their fertility journeys at work. Naturally, this leads to improved staff retention.

Recruitment is also bolstered, as research shows that becoming fertility friendly makes SMEs more attractive to work for. A recent survey by Totaljobs showed that 4 in 10 UK workers are more likely to apply for a job with fertility benefits and perks.

The future is fertility friendly

One of the key principles behind Fertility Matters at Work, and our ‘Fertility Matters Essential’ package, is to open up conversations within the workplace so that those facing fertility struggles don't need to suffer in silence.

By increasing awareness and overcoming the many misconceptions that exist on this taboo topic, organisations can support the many working women and men that are facing this challenge.

Not only will this improve the personal experiences of their employees, but it will also empower organisations to build an inclusive and supportive workplace, helping them to become modern employers of choice.

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Natalie Silverman is co-founder of Fertility Matters at Work CIC, an educational training provider that exists to educate and inspire businesses with an understanding of how infertility affects both their employees and their organisation. She is a regular panel host and chair at key fertility industry events, as well as a qualified Freedom Fertility Coach, supporting the emotional wellbeing of people struggling to conceive.

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