This is a question worth asking yourself if you’re experiencing fertility issues personally, or your role involves line management or HR responsibilities.
And when you’ve asked yourself that, ask yourself next, “what makes that so?”.
You may find the answers illuminating.
An individual’s perspective
It can certainly be uncomfortable to be open about fertility challenges in any context, but particularly in a work context.
If you think about it, on the natural path to parenthood, few people disclose that they are trying to make a baby, especially to their boss and colleagues. Fewer people still disclose the finer details of what they’re doing and when in order to make it happen! (And we can probably all be grateful for that!).
So hopefully you can appreciate how it can feel very exposing for those who are following a more complex route to parenthood, to be so open about something which is so deeply personal.
But quite aside from personal sensitivities, in a work context, talking about these issues can also generate a multitude of fears and anxieties, such as:
- What if I get emotional when I start to talk about it?
- How much detail will I need to share?
- Will I end up having to talk about things I don’t want to talk about, at times I don’t want to talk about them? For example, the outcome of treatments.
- How widely will I need to share?
- What if the people I confide in don’t respect my privacy and keep my situation confidential?
- What will people think?
- What if they think less of me, or that I’m making an issue out of nothing, or a burden?
- How will they react?
- What if they don’t understand and aren’t supportive?
- Will my career still be taken seriously and will I still be considered for future opportunities?
- What if I’m no longer trusted, disregarded or overlooked?
These fears and anxieties are perfectly normal and understandable and in my experience of speaking to individuals in this situation, they are extremely common too.
But they are also capable of being alleviated in working environments where fertility is acknowledged and accepted as a workplace issue and where there is evidence that conversations about fertility are taking place and fertility related needs are being met. Evidence of these activities operating at a senior level can be particularly encouraging for those in more junior positions.
In such working environments, there’s a lot individuals may gain from opening up about their fertility challenges, including:
- A sense of relief, as the weight of secrecy is lifted. You know what they say, a problem shared is a problem halved – and fertility challenges and their impact on working life can often feel like a significant problem.
- An easing of feelings of loneliness and isolation and instead, a greater sense of connection with those ‘in the know’.
- A feeling of being understood and supported, and of being ‘in it together’ rather than ‘going it alone’.
- A better understanding of reciprocal needs and expectations and how, and to what extent, they may be met.
- The reassurance of being afforded some flexibility and having agreed strategies for dealing with events and issues which may arise, for example, time off for attending appointments or arrangements for communicating the outcome of treatments etc.
- A greater sense of safety and security in relation to short term and long term career prospects.
- A greater sense of capability and confidence to manage the fertility journey and working life in tandem.
- Increased motivation and connection with work.
So if that’s the case, why isn’t every working environment operating in such an open and supportive way?
An employer’s perspective
Fertility has been a taboo subject in the workplace for so long, with so few individuals raising their concerns and sharing their experiences, that most HR managers and line managers have never dealt with it. They’re simply not used to having conversations about it or being involved in managing it, nor have they been equipped to do so. They’re potentially oblivious to it being an issue at all, or they’re choosing, (as many of us do), to avoid something they could find difficult and uncomfortable.
So hopefully you can appreciate how discussing fertility at work can feel exposing for managers too – exposing of their potential lack of knowledge, understanding, skill, experience or confidence to know how to respond empathetically and constructively. This can lead to fears and anxieties such as:
- What if I do or say the wrong thing?
- What if I cause offence or emotional upset?
- What if I cause this to go wrong for the individual? There’s so much at stake.
- What if I expose the organisation to a legal claim?
- How can I meet their needs and still meet the needs of their colleagues and the business?
These fears and anxieties are also perfectly normal, understandable and extremely common too.
And they are also capable of being alleviated in working environments where line managers and HR managers are provided with the education, training, policies and guidance they need, in order to be able to provide the understanding, flexibility and support that individuals need.
In such working environments, there’s a lot employers may gain from this understanding and supportive approach, including:
- Avoiding the cost and disruption of resignations, reductions in hours or changes in roles that could result from individuals feeling unsupported and unable to manage their work alongside their fertility journey.
- Avoiding the cost, disruption and negative publicity of potential litigation if fertility related situations are poorly managed, or perceived to have been poorly managed.
- An engaged and loyal workforce. If you support someone through one of the most challenging times of their life, and help them to achieve what they want most in their life, they are likely express their gratitude through dedication and commitment.
- Motivated and high performing employees. If you enable someone to work in a way that works for them, they are more likely to produce their best work.
- Functional teams. If you work with an individual in relation to their needs, they are more likely to work with you in relation to the needs of others.
- Inclusive and diverse leadership. If you enable fertility challenges to be managed in conjunction with careers, careers are less likely to end or stall.
- A competitive edge. If you show genuine support for fertility in the workplace, you’re more likely to stand out from the competition and recruit and retain the best talent.
Reflecting on these perspectives, when it comes to discussing fertility at work it seems individuals and managers share the same basic problem and the same solution.
The problem is fear and anxiety.
The solution is creating a culture of open discussion and supportive practices that normalise fertility in the workplace.
The more we do this, the easier and more common place fertility at work discussions can become, and the more the benefits of having those discussions can be enjoyed by everyone concerned.
It may be unrealistic to expect conversations about fertility at work to become entirely comfortable for everyone, all of the time, (especially given the sensitivities), but it’s certainly an ideal we can aspire to. I know it’s what I aspire to in the work that I do.
If you would like support with any of the issues referred to in this article, please contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Emma Menzies | 03 March 2021
Copyright © 2021 Emma Menzies t/a Ready Steady Coach