I’m so incredibly fortunate to have two awesome girls who we brought into the world via IVF. My eldest is getting ready to go to school in September, my youngest is now 18 months. Our house is noisy and messy!
IVF is one of those little talked about “mysterious”, sometimes controversial, processes. As such it can be difficult to know how to support families going through treatment in the workplace. In 2018 an estimated 54,000 patients went through IVF treatment in the UK.
By sharing a little of my personal story, I hope to inform and show how employers can support employees and their partners, going through this emotionally charged and physically demanding process.
IVF is time demanding and very time critical - there is very little wiggle room on when things happen once the process is in full swing. It’s full of anxious waiting, poking, prodding, awful phone calls, hope and disappointment. I consider myself relatively fortunate in that I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get pregnant naturally. So I was spared the many months and years of disappointment before we entered the clinic. But it still took us many years, many rounds, a lot of money and a lot of heartbreak before we completed our family.
Not everyone’s process looks the same, there are different protocols that patients may be put on. I’ve shared mine, but there are so many different ways IVF can play out. If you are reading this as an employer, be thinking about the amount of appointments, time, physical and emotional demands needed at each step. The mental health and general well-being strain that IVF puts on a family is unreal.
- Appointment with consultant, make an initial plan
- Meet with a counsellor to make sure we’re aware of the emotional implications and where we can access support from if we need it
- Blood tests and scans
- Appointment with consultant - outcome of results. Make another plan.
- Appointment with nurse to show how to administer injections and medication
- 2 weeks of injections administered at home - had to be the same time every day and needed to be refrigerated
- Scans to check everything going as expected
- Final scan to make sure my body is ready
- Stimulation shot - done at a specific time with egg collection exactly 12 hours later - no earlier, no later
- Day surgery to collect eggs - general anaesthetic - from this point on, it’s a waiting and numbers game... My numbers were 12 collected.
- Phone call to say how many eggs had fertilised - 6 left :-(
- Call at day 5 - how many are actually good enough to use - 3 in my case - this is a typical drop off rate. It’s an awful phone call to take...
- Then there’s the big appointment to put an embryo back in
- Two week wait - this is a horrific time of symptom spotting, googling & worrying (some women take this time off work - I decided not too and to keep myself distracted)
- Pregnancy test - ❤️ Or 💔
This is just one process, if it doesn’t work first time, embryos can be frozen and the last couple of steps repeated until all embryos are used. The phone call from the clinic to hear if your embryo has successfully thawed prior to them being implanted is also horrendous!
So how as an employer can you support this? I’d encourage you to get clear on what your stance would be if one of your team told you there were going through IVF. I’m not one for a whole raft of policies, but many larger employers do have one - either way , it can be helpful and supportive to talk upfront with employees about how you can support and help.
Here’s some of the key considerations:
- Ask them to share their process with you if they are comfortable to do so. There is a lot of information, medical terms and jargon used in IVF. I was mostly dazed and confused throughout, so don’t automatically assume your employee will know exactly how it will play out!
- Appointments can be last minute and frequent. Where you can, be flexible and understanding. Not every job can facilitate that - but what can you do? What information would you like so you can keep work things moving, but support your employee at the same time? Consider unpaid leave, annual leave entitlement, or a period of temporary flexible working as a way of enabling the employee to take the time out that they need.
- If you offer your employees mental health support, make sure you are sharing the details of how to access that (I’m thinking here about EAP schemes, or private medical insurance). They will likely have been signposted to support via their clinic, but you can also play a part in supporting their mental health through the journey
- Whatever your usual medical appointment process is, you should follow the same. Don’t treat it any differently. I don’t want to hear any comments about it being and “optional” thing - don’t be that employer. This includes time off sick as a result of side effects from IVF treatment, you should treat this as you would any other period of sickness.
- The medications are pumping hormones into your body. They can make some people extremely unwell and can change their appearance. The bruises from injecting every day are horrid and you feel bloated, uncomfortable and at times in pain. Are there ways you can make the physical demands of the role easier for the employee during this time?
- Case law suggests that an employee is considered to be pregnant from when an egg has been fertilised, before it is put back into the uterus. Wrap that same care and support around them that you would any other pregnant employee. Usually if you’re talking about “rights” then you’ve lost the engagement game - but pregnancy and maternity rights do apply here - you can read more in this article.
- The two week wait is HORRENDOUS. You want to wrap yourself in cotton wool - you worry about every little twinge, every knock - everything is hyper exaggerated. Your employee may need support from you here too.
- Please think about the partners of the employees going through this too. They also need to be at appointments and are experiencing all the emotional highs and lows even if their body isn’t experiencing it.
- If the IVF doesn’t work, medically it’s a miscarriage. Emotionally it is no different. Miscarriage is a whole different article, but it should go without saying that it is devastating to experience. Support your employee, and their partner.
Hurrah - you’re pregnant. We’re done right?! Well not really! I was still taking medication to help protect my pregnancy. I needed early scans to check on what was going on in there. My anxiety was at an all time high once I’d got that positive. The baby is so precious, I’d been through so much to bring it into the world. My Googling at this point was out of control! Don't skip out on that important health and safety risk assessment that you should be doing for all pregnant employees, however early on in their pregnancy they are, you may identify area of adjustment that can help.
I’d really encourage you to support families in your team going through this as much as you can. If they feel comfortable talking about it, listen and offer as much support as you can. Yes it’s a lot of time away from work, but what’s more important? The work, or their potential to start family? If the work can get done and you can help them fulfil their dreams of having a family, isn’t that what a wonderful employer would do?
If you’d like to ask me any questions about how to support your employees, or build a policy around this, I’d be delighted to help. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d also love to hear of any best practice in this area, so I can add it in to this blog.🙂