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Fertility in the workplace

Fertifa partnered with Fertility Network UK to hear from individuals who have experienced fertility challenges alongside a career, to determine what impact there has been on workplace performance and dynamics.

We hope this report continues to raise awareness of the difficulties that the road to conception can have on individuals – and, more importantly, what companies can do to support their employees.

Executive summary

One in six couples in the UK faces fertility challenges, which equates to approximately 3.5 million people. One in four women will experience a miscarriage while trying to conceive and 40% of all fertility problems are due to male factor infertility.

These statistics tell us that there will be a significant proportion of employees in business who are going through a personal fertility journey.  Our survey has uncovered the extent of the challenges these people experience, and how they impact working life.  There are some good bits of news but on the whole, there is still a lot of work to be done.

Sadly, it seems that the mental health impact of infertility has not improved. In 2019, Fertility Network UK revealed that 90% of people experiencing fertility challenges will feel some degree of depression. The numbers this year are very similar, with 9 out of 10 people stating they felt one or more of the following: depression, anxiety and stress.

The impact of fertility struggles on working life remains worryingly high.  72% rate the impact as “high” or “very high” and 38% have seriously considered leaving their job specifically because of their personal journey.  

There has, however, been a gradual increase in understanding on the employer side. We’ve seen many more business come forward in the past twelve months, announcing that they have introduced a new fertility policy or some level of workplace support.  As awareness and uptake grows, we would expect to see clear improvements in these results.

Most encouragingly, almost 80% of people did tell their employer about their fertility journey, suggesting that the workplace taboo is starting to break.  However, 60% of people were not honest about the time taken off for appointments and fertility-related illness, indicating that there is still work to be done with getting workplace policies right and in instilling a culture of openness which means employees shouldn’t have to feel guilty about taking the time they need to get their treatment.

Fertility challenges can have a significant impact on employee wellbeing.

Financial pressures from the cost of IVF can have a serious impact on wellbeing and gruelling drug regimes and medical procedures are physically draining. 

Perhaps the most severe impact on wellbeing comes from the emotional side.  It can be incredibly frustrating when your body does not work as nature intended and each monthly cycle is a huge rollercoaster for couples who are desperate to conceive.  For those who pursue assisted conception, there is an additional layer of stress.

As IVF does not guarantee a positive outcome, it can take several rounds to achieve a successful pregnancy, which brings with it immense pain and frustration.

Anxiety 91%
Stress 89%
Depression 88%
Issues with focusing / concentrating 79%
Mood swings 72%

9 out of 10 people on a fertility journey will experience mental health challenges. This number is very much in line with the previous Fertility Network UK survey which revealed that 90% of respondents felt some degree of depression while struggling to conceive.

Only 2% of respondents said they did not experience any significant impact on their emotional wellbeing.

How do/did you rate the impact of fertility issues on your working life?

  • A total of 72% said the impact was either “very high” (37%) or “high” (35%). 
  • Only 2% believe there was “no impact”.

%

63.2% of people surveyed said that fertility challenges impact their ability to carry out their duties at work.
0 %
Said they experienced a negative impact on their relationship with their partner
0 %
Said they experienced a negative impact on their relationship with friends and family
0 %
Said they experienced a negative impact on their relationship with colleagues or their manager

We asked our survey group to identify which negative emotions they felt during their fertility journey.

91% said they experienced “pregnancy envy”. This is where the person struggling to conceive cannot feel joy for anyone else’s pregnancy news but instead feels increased negative emotion towards their own situation. This can happen to the kindest of people and is impossible to control, so it adds further strain to the process of struggling with fertility.

78% say they became withdrawn from society, which is another example of just how severely mental health can be affected by a fertility struggle.

0 %
Experienced pregnancy envy
0 %
Became withdrawn from society
0 %
Said they felt financial worries

Employees aren't always comfortable sharing their challenges with managers.

However, there are encouraging signs that the ‘taboo’ is starting to break.

1 in 5 employees surveyed did not tell their employer about the challenges that they were facing. Reasons cited include:

  • They felt uncomfortable
  • They felt it would have a negative impact on their career progression prospects
  • They didn’t feel it was necessary to tell their employer
  • They felt their employer wouldn’t understand
  • They felt their manager or colleagues would be unsupportive
%
%

Encouragingly, we found that just under 80% of employees did tell their employer when they were experiencing their fertility challenges. This number is higher than expected and suggests that awareness around infertility and fertility challenges is gradually rising.

However, 11% of employees had a negative experience when they did tell their employer. Furthermore, 21% of employees stated that the conversation was “neutral”.  This indicates that there is still work to be done in educating line managers in how to handle these difficult conversations.

It is becoming increasingly commonplace for companies to offer fertility support.

The first step tends to be a dedicated fertility, family-forming or reproductive health policy.

0%

Said that their company had a dedicated pregnancy loss policy.

0%

Said that their company had a dedicated fertility policy.

0%

Said that their company has a policy offering paid time off for appointments.

There has been a recent surge in companies updating their policies to include pregnancy loss, fertility and menopause and these results are indicative of change in the right direction. There is increasing external pressure for companies to take action – for example, there is a campaign currently underway to make pregnancy loss leave mandatory – so we would expect to see these numbers rise again in twelve months’ time.

In spite of encouraging signs around more honest conversations at work, employees still feel the need to hide the full extent of their fertility challenges.

60% of respondents cited that they have concealed taking time off work for appointments or fertility-related illness. The volume of examinations and tests needed and side-effects of treatment can lead to a lot of time being taken from work, and, as one respondent pointed out “fear of being judged and hampering my career prospects forced me to keep quiet”.

We asked whether employees have ever concealed the true reason for taking time off when attending fertility-related appointments or illness.

No - and my employer was aware of the truth
32.3%
Yes - frequently or always
24.2%
Yes - occasionally
18.4%
Yes - just once or twice
16.6%
No - and I didn't specify but just chose to cite a medical appointment
8.5%

There are simple ways to improve support in the workplace.

We asked employees to give their opinions on how helpful the following benefits would be in the workplace:

1 = not helpful at all; 5 = extremely helpful

How helpful do you think the following fertility benefits would be?

1

2

3

4

5

A fertility policy

0.0%

0.0%

4.9%

23.3%

71.7%

Education for HR professionals

0.0%

0.9%

4.0%

26.0%

69.1%

Assistance funding treatments – such as IVF

2.2%

1.3%

7.6%

26.5%

62.3%

Access to health assessments and doctor consultations

4.0%

6.7%

13.9%

21.5%

53.8%

Education for employees – e.g. lunch & learns

5.8%

6.7%

16.6%

26.5%

44.4%

Access to a fertility support helpline

7.6%

7.6%

24.7%

22.9%

37.2%

A dedicated fertility policy was seen to be the most valuable benefit for employers to consider when supporting those undertaking fertility challenges. An overwhelming majority of 95.0% of those surveyed said that this would be either helpful or very helpful.

Our survey also asked whether a fertility policy was already in place. Only 21.5% said yes, with a further 24.2% saying that they were unsure.

While undergoing treatment, how useful are the following?

1

2

3

4

5

Flexible hours to accomodate appointments

0.0%

0.0%

1.3%

22.0%

76.7%

An option to book time off for fertility appointments

0.4%

2.2%

3.1%

20.2%

74.0%

Access to fertility-specific counselling

1.8%

2.2%

9.0%

26.9%

60.1%

Private space to administer medication

1.8%

5.8%

12.6%

23.8%

56.1%

A workplace confidante to provide support

4.5%

4.0%

15.2%

30.5%

45.7%

Temporarily assume a less demanding position

3.6%

13.9%

20.2%

29.6%

32.7%

Flexible hours to accommodate appointments is the most sought-after support from an employer. The Covid pandemic has really accelerated a more flexible working approach from employers, so we expect that this will be a more common practice moving forwards.  

A lack of support leads to disengagement in the workplace.

We asked:

 

Have you experienced any of the following at work as a result of your fertility journey?

55.6% felt decreased job satisfaction
Given that such a high proportion in this survey have revealed their struggles with depression or anxiety, that is bound to have an impact on happiness at work.
38.1% thought about quitting (or quit) their job
When you consider that 3.5 million workers are on a fertility journey, this figure suggests that a high volume of talent may be exiting the workforce due to a lack of support and understanding.
40.8% struggled to stay on top of work
The process of trying to conceive over a long period can lead to priorities shifting away from the workplace. This can, however, be brought back into balance - with the right support in place.
62.8% felt reduced engagement
A fertility journey can be all-consuming and lead to a lack of engagement at work. Employers need to recognise that this is a temporary state and that improvements can be made by introducing some workplace support.
36.3% had an increased sickness absence
This figure is likely to include complications of early pregnancy, including pregnancy loss and failed embryo transfer and time taken to recover emotionally as well as physically.
We asked:

 

If your employer does / were to provide fertility benefits, what would the impact of that be on your and your colleagues experiencing fertility challenges?

0 %
Improved loyalty to the company
0 %
A happier workforce
0 %
Increased motivation

Our respondents said there were significant benefits to offering support.

Increased happiness, wellbeing and loyalty were the most cited reasons for offering fertility support in the workplace.

0 %
Decreased absenteeism
0 %
Increased productivity

The details and demographics

In September 2021, Fertifa and Fertility Network UK conducted a survey to:

  • Understand the impact of fertility challenges in the workplace;
  • Explore what support employers are currently offering;
  • Given employees an opportunity to share what they want their companies to offer

Demographics surveyed:

  • Female – 98.2% . Male – 1.8%
  • 18-30 – 15.7% . 31-40 – 67.7% . 41-50 – 16.6%
  • United Kingdom – 97.8% . Elsewhere – 2.2%

When asked how long our respondents have / had been trying to conceive:

  • Less than a year – 6.7% . Up to 2 years – 19.3% . 2-5 years – 49.8% . Over 5 years – 24.2%

When asked if they had experienced a miscarriage, baby loss, still birth or chemical pregnancy:

  • Yes – 43% . No – 57%