22222222The silent struggle: navigating infertility in the workplace
By Gloria Jiang
Infertility, a deeply private and personal matter, remains silent in the workplace, whereas policies concerning pregnancy and childbirth have seen considerable progress. This gives rise to a covert struggle that many individuals and couples find difficult to navigate due to the enduring and continuous nature of treatments. The emotional, physical, and financial challenges that infertility poses can echo into professional life, causing stress, anxiety, and feelings of isolation that may conflict with work responsibilities. As many infertile employees lack adequate support from their organizations, it is of paramount importance that we take strides towards addressing this overlooked topic and create a more inclusive workplace during this Infertility Awareness Month.
The Hidden Toll of Infertility
Infertility persists to be a common problem in the United States, with UCLA Health estimating that approximately 15% of married couples encounter difficulties in conceiving, as reported in 2020. Specifically, about 1 in 5 married women between the ages of 15 to 49 years, with no prior births, find themselves unable to get pregnant after a year of trying. While men can also have contributing factors to infertility, including disruption of testicular or ejaculatory function, genetic disorders, and hormonal imbalances, the burden of infertility is often shouldered by women and birthing people. This underscores the importance of enhanced protective measures for all birthing people in the society, especially in the workplace.
Imbalance Between Treatment and Work
To those grappling with infertility, their personal battles do not pause when they enter the office. Infertility treatment often necessitates numerous and unpredictable clinic visits, creating a significant challenge for employees undergoing these procedures. Regular workdays typically start between 7 am to 9 am, a time often populated with daily meetings. However, for patients, this timeframe frequently overlaps with early-morning monitoring sessions, including blood tests and ultrasound checks. When they return to work after examinations, they may feel subtle stress due to perceived shortcomings in their time commitment.
In addition to these challenges, the physical and emotional strain of infertility treatments – the rollercoaster of hope and despair, the anxiety of treatments, and the stigma and embarrassment that often associated with infertility can drastically impact work performance and overall well-being. According to a study published in UK, 40% of the respondents reported an experience of suicidal feelings and a staggering 83% reported feelings of depression and sadness due to infertility. Furthermore, over one-third of the study’s participants expressed that their career was negatively impacted due to infertility treatment, and an overwhelming 84% stated that their concentration ability and job performance were hindered.
Workplace Understanding and Support
Sadly, only 25% of the individuals in the aforementioned study spotted supportive policies in their workplaces. The research also noted a heightened level of distress among patients, largely due to insufficient support and a lack of understanding from their employers.
The level of understanding and support for infertility in the workplace varies widely from company to company, mirroring a broader societal challenge to fully grasp the complexities of this issue. It is not uncommon for employees undergoing fertility treatments to face misunderstanding, lack of sensitivity, or even blatant discrimination. Many wrestle with the decision of whether to disclose their struggle with infertility to their employers, given its personal nature and the potential lack of support they may receive upon disclosure. In the same study, 50% of the women respondents opted to withhold their fertility treatment details from their employers, primarily due to concerns of not being taken seriously. Additionally, over 40% refrained from disclosure fearing it could undermine their competitiveness from promotion opportunities, as their physical ability to handle heavy workloads might be in question.
What Can Companies Do?
Monetary support is commonly adopted by many companies to alleviate the substantial monetary burden faced by infertile couples. This can take the form of all-inclusive health insurance plans that cover infertility treatments. For instance, large corporations such as Apple, Amazon, Google, and Meta have started offering financial coverage to employees undergoing In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) treatment. Besides financial support, progressive companies should recognize the necessity of supportive measures to their employees dealing with infertility. This could include policies that allow for flexible work hours, the option to work remotely, or offering personal leave options to accommodate the frequent medical appointments associated with infertility treatments.
More importantly, fostering a workplace culture of empathy and understanding can help lessen the emotional load employees may experience. Companies can launch relevant training programs to promote understanding and sensitivity around the topic of infertility. This not only helps dispel misconceptions, but also cultivates a more inclusive and supportive workplace culture. Furthermore, colleagues often play a vital role in raising awareness about infertility and breaking down stigmas surrounding infertility in the workplace. An atmosphere filled with optimistic peers can provide invaluable emotional reinforcement to infertile individuals who are suffering depression or despair.
Navigating infertility while managing work responsibilities is indeed a silent struggle. It is time for more employers to acknowledge and address this issue. By fostering understanding and providing adequate support, let us transform the workplace into a more inclusive and compassionate environment, and turn this unseen battle into a shared journey, encouraging infertile employees during one of the most challenging times in their lives.