By Anna Sane, CEO and co-founder at AI-led fertility platform Tilly
Within society, both infertility and pregnancy loss are shrouded in taboo, and the workplace is no exception. The extent of this stigma deters many employees from sharing their fertility challenges with their workplace despite them needing to frequent medical appointments and undergo treatment. Not only do these appointments involve taking leave, but they very often take an emotional toll on the person going through treatment, which subsequently affects their performance at work. If an employee doesn’t feel that they can be open with their employers about the real reasons for repeated absences, they might end up unfairly using their annual leave, or even be penalised by being passed up for promotions or progression. The lack of alternatives for those coping with infertility and balancing their career is becoming detrimental, and policies need to change.
Thus, a robust fertility policy in the workplace is crucial to upholding employees’ wellbeing, as well as positivity within workplace culture overall. This necessity is why we at Tilly implemented policies around fertility support into the fabric of our company, and we consider these policies important for many reasons.
Firstly, they help our employees get through what is often a very difficult and misunderstood challenge, with less pressure or stress than many others unfortunately face in the workplace.
Secondly, having these types of policies in practice opens the dialogue around fertility, which helps us lessen the taboos surrounding these experiences. Being able to recognise and address a topic openly has a strong, positive impact on mental wellbeing, and there are few subjects surrounded by such pervasive ‘silence culture’ as fertility.
And finally, we knew that if we wanted to change the world, we’d have to ensure our efforts are reflected in our own working practices. Because of this, our fertility policy provides Tilly employees with the same (if not greater) level of support that they’d get from undergoing any other kind of medical treatment, from maternity leave to cancer treatment, without fear of professional retribution. While we can’t take the struggle away, we can ensure that no one at Tilly experiences fertility discrimination, and help them get the support they need for their journey both within the workplace, and out of it.
The stigma surrounding fertility issues is ultimately worsened by most countries’ lack of legal regulation around fertility treatments. Many countries do not protect employees that are trying to conceive – instead, protection typically comes into place only after pregnancy and/or birth. Unfortunately, this means that those who are trying to conceive are vulnerable in the workplace, in that they can face the same type of discrimination that expecting parents once faced, before discrimination laws became commonplace. Enacting laws which require workplaces to give employees time off for treatment and related sickness would offer employees protection and support which would reduce both the stress and stigma surrounding infertility. Because of this, the onus lies with companies who must implement their own policies surrounding fertility.
Workplaces should encourage an open dialogue around fertility and should make sure that it is treated in the same manner as any other medical issue. A lack of this open dialogue could mean that, while a company may support an employee if they feel comfortable enough to confide in them, employees may feel the need to keep their struggles secret, and may well miss out on any flexibility and understanding afforded by an open dialogue. Therefore, it is a company’s duty to be overt about its commitment to supporting employee’s fertility struggles to tackle breaking down unnecessary taboos. In Tilly, we cemented our unmistakeable support of those struggling through our ‘Trying to conceive’ policy’, which enables employees paid leave and/or flexible working for all vital appointments and treatments, from fertility investigations through treatment without penalty.
Companies should also harbour a culture of compassion for the toll fertility struggles can have on an employee’s mental health. Therefore, as part of our trying to conceive policy, we made the decision to offer paid mental health leave in the form of a ‘Disappointment day’. Infertility is accompanied by a range of disappointing news that can appear at any moment. To give employees space to mourn and provide them with an opportunity to reset, Tilly enables employees to take disappointment days, so that they can look after their physical and mental wellbeing. This also includes time off for pregnancy loss – both for the parent directly experiencing a loss, and partners and parents who experience pregnancy loss through a surrogate.
It is also important to remember that infertility does not solely affect women, and understanding should be extended to both genders who may need time off for fertility treatments. Beyond this, flexibility should be offered to partners of those undergoing treatment, as it can be expected that both partners will want to be present for an appointment, which marks the momentous ‘conception’ of a child, giving couples struggling the same dignity afforded to those who conceive without challenge.
By encouraging an open culture, where our employees and their partners can discuss their fertility struggles and ensuing treatments with us, we can start to chip away, and ultimately break down, the taboos and silence which surrounds infertility. Not only does this create greater transparency in the workplace, which prevents unfair penalties caused by unexplained or frequent sick days, but this also encourages a culture of flexibility and compassion which, while being unable to mitigate the heartache which often accompanies fertility journeys, can certainly make the journey a little easier.