Fertility treatment in the workplace has been an increasingly talked about topic since the Fertility Treatment (Employment Rights) Bill was submitted to the house of commons in November 2022 and the Fertility Workplace Pledge launch last year. The pledge kicked off with signatures from large companies such as NatWest group, The Co-op group, Metro Bank group, The Guardian, Channel 4 and UK Hospitality.
Whether your company, or the company you work within, is large or small, there is a fair probability that at least one of your employees is undergoing, considering, or awaiting fertility treatment.
Statistics from The World Health Organisation report that one in six heterosexual couples will experience infertility during their life. Alongside this, the number of same-sex couples and single persons who are using fertility services to start or grow their families continues to increase. This means that fertility treatments, and the joys and tribulations associated with this process, are increasingly likely to make their way into the workplace. Undergoing fertility treatment can often be draining, both emotionally and physically. For those in employment, balancing work and treatment can be quite a challenge.
Supporting an employee who is undergoing or awaiting fertility treatment may seem daunting for an employer due to several factors, such as the lack of a clear legal framework around time off for IVF treatment or related sickness absences, and the general taboo and unfamiliarity around fertility treatment and its implications.
It may seem easier to brush the subject under the carpet and hope for the best. But the demands and intrusiveness of fertility treatments mean that they are likely to impact aspects of one’s work life. The current culture around fertility treatment has led some employees to hide their ongoing treatment and potential symptoms from their employers. Indeed, it has been reported that some women have resorted to getting blood drawn during their lunch break and injecting medication in the staff toilets.
Outcomes from the Fertility Network survey help illustrate the impact this can have in the workplace:
- More than 1 in 10 respondents (15%) either reduced their hours or left their job.
- Over a third (36%) of respondents felt their career was damaged as a result of them undergoing fertility treatment, and the majority (58%) felt concerned that their fertility treatment would affect their career prospects.
- Only a quarter (25%) reported the existence of a supportive workplace policy, while 1 in 5 (19%) were unsure if a workplace fertility policy even existed.
- Less than half (45%) of respondents felt they had received really good support from their employer.
- The majority of respondents (77%) did disclose they were undergoing fertility treatment to their employer, but of these less than half (47%) said their employer made any attempt to accommodate their needs in this regard.
Alongside fulfilling a duty of care to employees, businesses need to understand the legal implications at different stages of fertility treatment.
Currently there is not statutory time off allocated specifically for fertility treatment or related sickness absences. However, dependent on the stage the individual is at, usual pregnancy, maternity and paternity rights can apply to an employee undergoing fertility treatment.
Failing to meet legal obligations relating to these employment rights could risk exposure to claims for sex or pregnancy-related discrimination and / or unfair dismissal, which would have financial consequences as well as a potentially detrimental reputational impact.
What can an employer do?
There are several actions an employer can take to work towards a more fertility-friendly culture. This includes ensuring that managers have knowledge and awareness of the subject, that they are equipped to have difficult conversations around it and know the steps they could take to accommodate the needs of employees going through treatment.
Many employers have introduced a fertility policy, the aim being to increase transparency, to aid a consistent application of appropriate approaches and to minimise the impact on both the business and its employees.
If you don’t have a fertility-specific policy, here are some ways support can be implemented:
- Consider allowing appropriate paid or unpaid time off work for medical appointments and have a process in place for requesting it.
- Ensure your sickness policy is fit for purpose and takes into account, when relevant, absences linked to fertility treatment.
- Introduce an Employee Assistance Programme to support employees undergoing treatment.
- Have a process in place for dealing with requests for flexible working.
- Consider what steps could be taken to accommodate the needs of employees undergoing fertility treatment.
Having a suitable policy in place will demonstrate to your employees that they are meaningfully supported in a way that is aligned with business needs and consistent across the organisation. In doing so, it will help improve employee engagement and mitigate associated legal risks.
If you require any further guidance on this subject or any other Human Resources, Employment Law or H&S or Wellbeing issues, please call 01942 727 200 and speak to a member of the team or email firstname.lastname@example.org.