When WH polled our community, 57% of those struggling with a hormonal or gynecological condition told us they believed it had hurt their career.
This is why we take a close, critical look at how female health issues – everything from endometriosis, fibroids and PMDD to fertility treatment and (peri)menopause – affect our working life.
How did we get here? how does it feel And how do we make meaningful change? This is Women’s Health at Work.
Lily* stares out in front of him at the park near her home in the north east of England. Her left hand holds a dog lead, her seat is on a wooden bench, and in her guts swirl feelings of defeat and disbelief. The tears come and she is grateful for the lack of fellow dog walkers.
Just an hour earlier, she had miscarried at work. She is still bleeding profusely into a sanitary napkin. It was the crushing culmination of not only the first round of IVF treatment, but over a year of trying and failing to conceive. And to make matters worse, the local government administrator, then 30, had to be back online within minutes.
Lily had never been so excited about the path her career would take. Nor did she romanticize the idea of a big white wedding when she was a little girl. Her daydreams did not center on the glamor and adventure possible from amassing serious wealth. “I always wanted to be a mother,” she says Women’s Health.
Growing up in a close-knit family, Lily’s siblings were a decade older than her. She was delighted to get to know their children; her unique vantage point in the family enabled her to form close bonds with her cousins. All that exposure only served to calcify the maternal instinct she had felt for so long, it was almost as if she was born with it.
Finding the right partner eluded her for years. Then, in her late twenties, she met Stephen* – gentle, loving and with feelings about parenthood. He finally released – so she had the wedding after all – and two years later, when Lily was 29 and they had just bought their first house, they first started to get pregnant.
By the time their first wedding anniversary rolled around without Lily getting pregnant, they decided to seek help. ‘Stephen had a low sperm count, which he beat himself up about. But it wasn’t until after we started the first round of treatment that doctors discovered I also had a low egg count – and they were of poor quality – so we were doubly challenged.’
The first round of IVF – from the injections to the collection procedure and the endless wait – was difficult from the start. The fact that Lily and Stephen only had one embryo raised the stakes. Then, during the tense two-week period after their only embryo was transferred, Lily began to miscarry.
“I told my boss – and my colleagues – that I was undergoing fertility treatment because I didn’t want to sneak around,” she tells WH. “Being so honest added to the shock I felt at how she reacted.”
“I was asked, ‘do you want to continue from here or do you want to go home and report?'” Lily recalled. “I thought because my boss is a woman – and a mother – she would have a little more compassion exposed.”
‘I didn’t need a fuss or any grand gestures. But if she had just said “go home and let us know what you need” it would have made the whole experience significantly less traumatic.’
Eventually Lily had to report from home after lunch to complete her day’s tasks (‘none of which were urgent’) while she continued to miscarry. And she also had to be back at the office the next day.
In the end, the only time she had to process what had just happened was the hours after she signed off for the day, when she crawled under the covers to sob.
‘Those few hours of my time meant very little to my team in terms of my output, but it was some of the most painful of my entire life. My mental health was already poor, but it made me feel broken,’ she recalls.
‘Everyone around me got pregnant easily while my dream was crushed. Not receiving any support in a workplace where I had worked for years – and publicizing what I was going through – made me feel extremely isolated. And almost foolish to think that my employer cares about me as a person.’
Just as Lily and Stephen were eager to get started on their second round of IVF, Covid-19 lockdowns landed across the UK and fertility treatments were put on hold. Lily was sinking lower and lower: there was no communication with their doctor and news of new pregnancies kept popping up on WhatsApp group chats and her social feeds.
Each announcement caused Lily to withdraw further, having to invent new excuses to avoid daily walks, outdoor coffee dates and later the rule of six park hangs.
However, the pandemic-enforced physical distance from her workplace was helpful. Lily could start work earlier so she could afford longer lunch breaks, when she would make the short drive to her father’s farm. The purposeful, physical work helped Lily work through the maelstrom of emotions trapped in her mind and body.
Although there’s no way to prove it, she suspects that these—peaceful, empowering—moments played a not insignificant role in her next round of IVF being successful—despite less than hopeful projections by her doctors.
Yes, this story has a happy ending: a daughter born in the summer of 2021. ‘We always say judging by her personality now – spirited and seriously resilient – we get the feeling there was no way she was ever going to make it,’ Lily smiled.
But amid the joy (and many struggles) that come with finally becoming a mother, Lily still feels deep frustration about what happened when she lost her first pregnancy.
“A big thing for me was that my manager had absolutely no idea what fertility treatment involved. Of course not everyone is going to have first hand experience and I didn’t expect her to be the font of all knowledge on the matter. But I wasn’t unreasonable to expect her to understand the basics, was I?’
A key lesson the experience taught Lily is that when dealing with fertility issues, simply expect bosses – of whatever gender; parents or child-free – acting in a compassionate way is not enough.
‘I would like to see more support; more clear rules about it that are clearly communicated by HR. When I started looking into adoption, my employer had policies in place for taking time off when I was going through that process. Why is it not the same for those undergoing fertility treatment?’
‘Why did I have to take sick leave for my appointments? And why was there no clear procedure my manager could have followed to avoid making this horrible experience even more painful?’
‘What happened affected not only my relationship with my manager, but how much I give to my work. I used to be extremely conscientious about making sure I finished everything before I was done for the day – answering every email and staying up late to finish tasks,’ says Lily.
‘But now I don’t. If I want to raise my little girl, why should I put myself on top of my hours for someone who didn’t support me – and frankly didn’t even try – when I was trying to get pregnant? ‘
*Names have been changed to protect identities
Fertility at work: What are your rights now?
Currently there is no provision to support those going through fertility treatment. However, on 22 June, Nickie Aiken MP’s Private Members Bill (PMB) – Fertility Treatment: Work Rights Bill – was read out in Parliament. The VMV will focus on introducing employment rights specific to fertility treatment, in particular statutory rights for time off to attend appointments.
According to a new report by Fertility Matters At Work, the demand is high. Almost three-quarters of those undergoing fertility treatment said they felt that fertility was not recognized and valued as a topic in their organization (74%), and 61% did not feel confident talking to their employer about having a baby not to try.
This is despite 50,000 people undergoing fertility treatment each year and declining fertility rates worldwide – making it highly likely that most organizational employees will experience fertility issues.
For more information visit fertilitymattersatwork.com
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