Becky Kearns was 27 and had just started a new job in human resources (HR) when she was diagnosed with early menopause.
“I needed to go through IVF relatively quickly to have any chance of conceiving with my own eggs,” she told BBC Radio 5 Live.
“So I went from having just got a job I was really proud of, to then suddenly having to focus on IVF, which almost became a second full-time job in itself.”
She decided to tell her employer from the outset.
“I think with the unpredictable nature of all the scan appointments, the endless hormones you’re putting through your body and the inevitable impact on mental health, it’s so important,” she said.
Within 18 months, Becky, who lives in Nottingham, had five cycles of IVF, including one miscarriage.
“It did affect me,” she said. “I ended up taking a sideways move out of a development pipeline role into a role that was less demanding for me. I did at one point consider taking a full career break because I just couldn’t cope emotionally.”
Lack of support
Fertility problems are estimated to affect as many as one in six couples in the UK – approximately 3.5 million people.
The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development wants employers to be more supportive of people going through fertility issues and treatment.
A survey conducted by LinkedIn and the charity Fertility Network UK has revealed that less than half of workers with fertility struggles feel supported by their employer and colleagues.
The survey also found that two-thirds of workers wouldn’t discuss fertility issues with their employers.
“It was just the incredible impact it had on my mental health that I found difficult to handle,” Becky, now 33, explained. “Many people don’t speak about their struggles because they actually don’t know they’re going to get the support”.
She reduced her hours to help her with the emotional side of the treatment, “because having to put that brave face on, especially when you’ve had some really bad news, it’s just exhausting”.
Becky eventually went abroad to have treatment using donor eggs, and now has a three-year-old girl and 20-month-old twins.
Lisa Finnegan is senior HR director at LinkedIn. She was working for a multinational US company when she went through her first two rounds of IVF. Both times, she conceived but miscarried.
“My performance at work dipped, my manager had no idea why this was happening. I was taking some unexplained absences, calling in sick, it was really quite a traumatic experience to go through,” she said.
Lisa said she didn’t feel the culture at the company allowed her to be open. “There just wasn’t the sense that you could have those really heart to heart conversations with your manager or with your team.”
‘Flexibility and understanding’
Lisa had moved to LinkedIn when she had her third round of IVF. This time she decided to be completely open with her new bosses.
“I sat down, I had the conversation with my manager; I really just felt I had to. I owed it to myself and my company in order to be able to set the scene for what I was going to need.
“And what I was going to need was some flexibility and some understanding.”
Although the IVF was also unsuccessful, Lisa found that having spoken to her employer “made the world of difference”.
“I was supported, people understood, I didn’t have to call in sick. I have a real issue with people having to call in sick when they’re experiencing a miscarriage.”
Lisa says workplaces will benefit from being supportive. “It makes you want to continue on there and really do your best work.”
Francesca Hockham, who lives in Milton Keynes, worried that taking extra time off would make people would think she was not committed.
“You’re nervous how that will be perceived by people because you don’t want them thinking you’re asking for an easy ride,” she said.
Francesca has been having fertility treatment since 2013. Her first line manager “tried to be very supportive”, but because it is hard to know when appointments will be, it made planning “difficult”.
In her second job it was more straightforward – “they allowed things like working from home, flexible working, different working hours”.
There is no statutory obligation for employers to allow staff time off for appointments, and many workplaces don’t have specific policies in place on this issue.
Zurich Insurance contacted BBC Radio 5 Live about their policy, which launched in September 2019. The company employs 4,500 in the UK, and now offers paid leave to support the IVF process, and paid leave to support people following a miscarriage.
Change of role
But for some people, like listener David, the role itself just doesn’t work with fertility treatment, and he’s decided to resign from his job.
David didn’t want to use his real name, but explained that at the start of the year, his wife had a miscarriage and they had since had three failed cycles of IVF.
He’d felt very supported by his employer. However, he added, “I’ve been pretty self-aware through the last 12 months how it’s affecting me at work, and my general enthusiasm in the workplace.”
As it’s a senior role and well paid, “the flexibility and the autonomy is probably not doing me as much good as I thought it would”.
David plans to move into a “much lower paid” role which has more interaction with people. He hopes it will be better for his wellbeing and enable him to be more supportive to his wife.