Juggling IVF And Work Can Leave You Feeling A Failure At Both

Many women don't feel they can talk openly about fertility at work – this is the impact.

Going through fertility treatment can be physically and emotionally gruelling, yet the majority of people keep treatment a secret while in the workplace.

Just 15% of people going through fertility treatment feel able to talk openly about it at work, according to new research by the charity Tommy’s, released for UK Fertility Awareness Week.

The vast majority of those surveyed (86%) said they had to put on a brave face at work while undergoing treatment, and most (62%) had worked when they didn’t really feel capable.

This is despite the fact that fertility treatment often causes physical discomfort such as bruising and abdominal pain, plus a significant strain on mental health. On top of this, there are usually multiple medical appointments to juggle alongside your work schedule.

Almost three quarters (71%) of those surveyed felt unable to answer honestly if colleagues asked how they were, with many worried about being judged (57%) and feeling like they didn’t fit in at work anymore (43%).

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Civil servant Liz struggled to balance the demands of her job with treatment when undergoing several rounds of IVF last year. “The internal turmoil is really intensified at work, because you want to be professional and worry that people won’t see you the same way if they know what’s going on, but it’s also really unhelpful to keep stress bottled up,” she told the charity.

“I always felt guilty having to leave the office for IVF, because it’s not like other long-term health issues that you feel able to discuss openly; I worried about people judging me for taking calls or going to appointments when they didn’t know why.”

The physical and emotional challenges of fertility issues are intensified at work when presenteeism is valued – 80% of people undergoing treatment were stressed about how medical appointments would impact their work, and 74% felt like they were letting people down if they needed time off.

Roughly half (53%) of people going through fertility treatment weren’t sure what support they were entitled to at work, with many (42%) feeling they couldn’t even ask, while a quarter (24%) had sadly asked for help but not received it. Most (56%) said they would or have left a job over lack of support during this challenging time.

HuffPost UK previously spoke to women about the practical and emotional difficulties of navigating IVF while working.

Nichola Johnson-Marshall, 42, from London, recalled walking around Canary Wharf with a handbag full of needles, on the lookout for a bathroom so she could inject the hormones that might help her conceive a second child.

“[I would] balance needles and medication dosages on the toilet while I was trying to measure out the quantities that I needed that day,” she said.

“I felt like I was failing at my job because I couldn’t 100% mentally commit to it and like I wasn’t giving myself the best chance for the IVF to work because I was so stressed out.”

Katherine Cotterell, 38 from London, also experienced practical challenges with IVF, but said it was the emotional impact she found most difficult.

“By far the biggest challenge for me was trying to have enough headspace and emotional capacity for both my job and treatment, which I at times found almost impossible and hugely overwhelming,” she said.

“I felt like I was failing at my job because I couldn’t 100% mentally commit to it and I felt like I wasn’t giving myself the best chance for the IVF to work because I was so stressed out all the time.”

Both women worried about telling employers they were undergoing fertility treatment, but eventually did when the pressure became too much. Thankfully, they each had positive experiences.

“It took the pressure off – so I could say I needed a day off because I was having the egg transfer and I wasn’t pretending to be off sick,” said Johnson-Marshall.

Cotterell added: “Even though the cycle failed, I felt much stronger and able to cope as I had the time off to deal with both the failure of the last cycle and the ones before.”

Tommy’s provides training for employers to help staff through common but complex issues like fertility treatment, pregnancy complications and baby loss. The charity is partnering with organisations across the country, from big companies like Santander to healthcare leaders like Birmingham Women’s & Children’s NHS FT, to improve workplace support throughout any pregnancy and parenting journey.

Tommy’s CEO Jane Brewin said: “The pregnancy journey can be a rocky road, and stigma in society often keeps us from discussing that. Up to one in three employees are pregnant or planning a pregnancy at any given time, and not everyone is comfortable disclosing this at work, but the tendency to start families later in life means people are more likely to experience problems and may need support.

“As well as employers having formal processes in place to give staff the support they need during fertility treatment, we can all help tackle the taboo so that nobody has to struggle in silence.”