Fertility challenges remain a largely hidden issue in UK workplaces, reflecting the fact they’re not talked about in wider society. Therefore, the importance and benefits of a supportive work environment haven’t been widely discussed and will not be on the radar of many employers or managers.

Our research shows a lack of workplace provision for people at what can be a very difficult time in their lives. For example, just over a quarter (27%) of employers we surveyed have a policy in place concerning fertility treatment. Only three in ten people (30%) said they felt very or quite supported at work by their employer while having fertility challenges, investigations, or treatment. Further, just under half (47%) said they felt very or quite supported by their line manager.

This is despite the prevalence of fertility challenges, with the NHS estimating that around one in seven couples may have difficulty conceiving. Given that the majority of people wanting to start or grow a family are of working age, it’s safe to assume that it’s typically people who are in employment who are affected. It’s vital, therefore, that employers and people professionals create caring and inclusive approaches to supporting people experiencing fertility challenges, investigations, or treatment.

It’s clear from our research that workplace support can have a significant impact on how someone can balance work with the demands of treatment. And support at work is valued by employees when dealing with the physical and mental wellbeing impacts of fertility issues.

Without effective and compassionate support, many people are going to feel unable to share their experience and access help at work. Almost one in five (19%) employees said they had considered leaving their job because of their experience at work in relation to fertility challenges, investigations, or treatment.

To support employers in developing an effective workplace framework of support, we have published new guidance, informed by our survey research. We believe this framework should be underpinned by the principles of compassion and empathy and be inclusive of people in different circumstances, identities and family make up, with support extended to partners.

In addition to the main guide for people professionals, we have also produced shorter practical guides for line managers and colleagues, and you can download a case study of good practice here as well as see how we at the CIPD are supporting our people on their fertility journey.

Value of workplace support for the individual and the employer

For employees experiencing difficulties conceiving, trying to have or grow a family can be a long and uncertain road that is often emotionally draining, socially challenging and financially tough. There can be significant impacts on someone’s mental and physical health. Managing the impacts alongside employment can be extremely difficult without an understanding and flexible employer. Support and understanding at work, from your employer, manager and colleagues can make a significant difference to someone. For example, when asked about the help they received at work, the majority of people said the support they received from their employer, line manager or colleagues was helpful. Furthermore, 64% of those who didn’t receive support from their employer said it would have been beneficial.

There are compelling business benefits of having a framework of support in place. Overall, our survey findings suggest a positive impact of effective employer support in areas such as mental wellbeing, commitment and intention to stay with your employer. In addition, the provision employers develop in this area will form part of an attractive employer value proposition to recruit and retain talented people.

What support do employees most value?

We asked people to tell us what support from their employer they received in relation to their experience of fertility challenges, investigations, or treatment. The top five are:

  • paid time off to attend appointments
  • understanding from the manager that it can be a challenging time
  • understanding from colleagues that it can be a challenging time,
  • flexibility of working hours
  • option to work from home when needed.

We then asked what types of support were, or would have been, most helpful.

For most forms of support, there’s a mismatch between the percentage of employees who said they received that support and the percentage who said that support was or would have been, helpful. For example, 40% of employees said paid time off to attend appointments was, or would be, most helpful, yet only 25% received it. Similarly, just 17% said they were able to flex their working hours, whereas 29% said this was or would have been helpful. Although three in ten (30%) people surveyed said paid compassionate leave was, or would be, most helpful, just 13% of survey respondents said they received it, and it, therefore, doesn’t feature on the top 5 list above.

Overall, the spread of responses to this question is an important reminder that everyone has different circumstances and needs, and so it’s important to treat people as individuals, asking what support at work they would find useful.) is an important reminder that everyone has different circumstances and needs, and so it’s important to treat people as individuals, asking what support at work they would find useful.

New practical guidance

We believe that supporting people is the right thing to do, but there is also a business case for employer action here. Drawing on our survey findings and wider research, the guidance provides practical ideas for developing workplace support for employees experiencing fertility challenges, investigations, and treatment. It’s structured around five principles of good practice to help you design the support that would be most helpful to your employees.

  1. Raise awareness across the organisation about the need for fertility challenges, investigations or treatment to be recognised as an important workplace wellbeing issue. Education and awareness-raising require careful thought and sensitivity in terms of language and approach, and so it’s a good idea to involve employee networks or resource groups, and draw on reliable sources of expert advice.
  2. Create an open, inclusive and supportive culture. The aim is to break down the stigma and ensure that people know they will be supported if they want to tell people about their experience. Communicate positive messages about the support available and ensure that line managers and colleagues show empathy and understanding.
  3. Develop an organisational framework to support employees experiencing fertility challenges, investigations, or treatment. This should include specific policy provision, line manager guidance and education as well as access to sources of expert help, such as an employee assistance programme and signposting to external specialist charities.
  4. Manage absence and leave with compassion and flexibility. Given the lack of statutory provision to support employees with fertility investigations and treatment, consider how generous the organisation’s policy can be in offering paid leave and flexibility in these circumstances. Absence management policies and procedures should be flexible and take into account the potentially far-reaching impacts of experiencing fertility challenges, investigations, or treatment, for both partners.
  5. Equip line managers to support people with empathy and understanding. Line managers play a central role in supporting people’s wellbeing and implementing people management policies. Employers cannot expect managers to act as counsellors or medical experts. Their role is to help employees with the work aspects of the situation and ensure that work is not part of the problem. Therefore, organisations should ensure that line managers understand the boundaries of their role, and when and how to signpost to specialist support. They need to build trust-based relationships so that someone will feel able to talk about their need for support or workplace adjustments.

About the authors

Rachel Suff, Senior Policy Adviser, Employee Relations

Rachel Suff joined the CIPD as a policy adviser in 2014 to increase the CIPD’s public policy profile and engage with politicians, civil servants, policy-makers and commentators to champion better work and working lives. An important part of her role is to ensure that the views of the profession inform CIPD policy thinking on issues such as health and wellbeing, employee engagement and employment relations. As well as conducting research on UK employment issues, she helps guide the CIPD’s thinking in relation to European developments affecting the world of work. Rachel’s prior roles include working as a researcher for XpertHR and as a senior policy adviser at Acas.

Jill Miller, Senior Policy Adviser, Diversity and Inclusion

Jill is Senior Policy Adviser for Diversity and Inclusion at the CIPD. Her work focuses on the areas of gender, age and neurodiversity and she has recently led work on race inclusion, managing drug and alcohol misuse at work, and supporting employees through fertility treatment, pregnancy loss and still birth. Earlier in her career, Jill specialised in small business growth through good people management and employee wellbeing.

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