News and Publications

Managing employees experiencing fertility challenges

Posted: 18/07/2023

Infertility is a medical condition estimated to affect one in six couples. In the UK, it is understood that approximately 3.5 million people are currently experiencing some fertility problems. Fertility challenges can be physically, emotionally and financially draining, significantly impacting mental and physical health. 

The demands of employment can often exacerbate the difficulties of infertility and fertility treatments. A recent study published by Fertility Network UK found that 55% of employees going through fertility treatment, or experiencing fertility issues, do not receive adequate support from their employers. Those facing these challenges often have concerns about telling their managers due to the fear of repercussions. They may be worried that managers will not take their fertility issues seriously, that they may affect their career prospects, or they may be concerned about potential confidentiality breaches. 

This article considers some of the issues that your employees may be facing and how, as senior managers, you can provide support.

What are the workplace challenges?

Research by Manchester Metropolitan University highlights the obstacles for employees who experience fertility challenges, investigations or treatment. These may include:

  • attending multiple (sometimes daily) clinic appointments – often arranged with little notice;
  • finding the time and privacy to take sensitive phone calls from the clinic during the working day, coupled with the anxiety of waiting for, and potentially missing, essential updates;
  • storing medication (which may require refrigeration) at work and finding a clean and private place to inject medication;
  • ‘cycles of hope and grief’, the challenge of receiving difficult news at work and managing the significant emotional transition if treatment is unsuccessful; and
  • potential strain on relationships both inside and outside work.

The Fertility Network UK report identified that only 47% of workers have benefited from adjustments such as the provision of a fridge for medication, a quiet space to inject medicine, or flexibility to take last-minute calls from their clinic. While these issues are highly detrimental to the employee concerned, they can also pose serious challenges in the workplace. It is not uncommon for individuals to leave their jobs, step down, reduce their hours, take career breaks or avoid applying for promotion due to these challenges, which will impact productivity and effective team management.

What are an employee’s rights?

As the law currently stands, there is no automatic legal right to time off for infertility treatment or any related sickness before pregnancy. ACAS recommends that employers manage appointments for fertility treatment in the same way as any other medical appointment or illness. Many employers now recognise this and allow their employees time off for fertility treatment. 

Women undergoing early-stage fertility treatment do not satisfy the legal definition of ‘pregnant’ and are not protected under pregnancy and maternity legislation. Legal protection applies only when fertilised eggs are implanted in the womb. Under the Equality Act 2010, if the implementation fails, this protection ends two weeks after the pregnancy ends. 

Proposals for change

The Fertility Treatment (Employment Rights) Bill was introduced in Parliament in 2022. The bill is aimed at improving the workplace for people undergoing fertility treatment. It would legally require employers to allow employees to take paid time off work to attend fertility treatment appointments. Additionally, an employee with a ‘qualifying relationship’ to a person receiving fertility treatment would be entitled to take unpaid time off work to accompany the person to the appointments. 

It remains unclear, however, whether these changes will become law as the bill’s progress through Parliament has stalled. 

How can I support my employees going through fertility challenges?

Your employees may be reluctant to discuss their fertility issues with you, and therefore the matter will need to be handled sensitively. An effective way is to encourage your employer to provide resources and support for those undergoing fertility issues. The Fertility Workplace Pledge has been launched alongside the bill, designed to benefit individuals and couples going through fertility treatment. Several large UK employers, including Co-op, Channel 4 and Aldi, have signed the pledge. By doing so, employers are committing to:

  • implementing a workplace fertility policy to increase transparency and reduce the stigma surrounding fertility issues;
  • appointing a fertility ambassador to encourage open conversations and promote internal support;
  • providing training for line managers to improve their understanding of the physical, emotional and financial impacts of fertility treatment; and
  • giving staff the right to request flexible working so that they can attend fertility clinic appointments. 

Encouraging your employer to sign the pledge, and bringing this to the attention of those you manage, will open up the conversation and enable you to support those who need it. 

Other practical ways in which you could provide support may include:

  • raising awareness that fertility challenges, investigations or treatment are recognised as an important workplace wellbeing issue affecting physical and mental health;
  • creating an open, inclusive and supportive culture;
  • encouraging your employer to develop an organisational framework to support employees experiencing fertility challenges, investigations or treatment. This could include implementing a specific workplace policy, guidance and training for staff and managers and signposting to employee assistance programmes and external specialist charities; and
  • being flexible about managing absence and leave. 

Having a support framework allows people to access support if they want to and provides clarity for employees considering or already undergoing treatment. 

Arrow GIFReturn to news headlines

Penningtons Manches Cooper LLP

Penningtons Manches Cooper LLP is a limited liability partnership registered in England and Wales with registered number OC311575 and is authorised and regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority under number 419867.

Penningtons Manches Cooper LLP