On 7 July 2022, Burgess Mee’s own Natalie Sutherland and CEO and Founder of Mimoza Fleur, Somaya Ouazzani, hosted In/Fertility in the City: Part 2 to a packed room of 120 people in Stephenson Harwood’s offices in London. This followed an inaugural event in December 2021. It was a morning of powerful testimony which advanced the discussion of how to break down stigma and better support colleagues in the workplace undergoing fertility struggles.
A guest panel comprised of Suzanne Johnston (Partner at Stephenson Harwood), Dr Belinda Coker MBCA MRCGP MBBS (GP and Founder and CEO of Your Trusted Squad), David Savage (Partner at Stewarts), Emma Harling-Phillips (Partner at Pinsent Masons), Gillian Boateng (Associate at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP), Louise Woods (Partner at Vinson & Elkins) and Emma Menzies (Fertility at Work Coach at Ready Steady Coach) shared their personal experiences of fertility challenges and family planning. These included pregnancy loss, IVF, secondary infertility, egg freezing, the issues facing same sex couples, the impact of race and intersectionality on fertility issues and domestic and international surrogacy.
Sitting in the audience, the honest testimony was poignant and arresting. There was an electric sense that in sharing their most harrowing experiences in vivid detail, the panellists were paving the way for a kinder, more navigable path for those who follow in their footsteps.
Nicky Aiken MP was in attendance and spoke of her efforts to expand statutory employment rights in this area by putting forward a Private Member’s Bill which, if successful, would require employers to allow employees to take paid time off work for fertility treatment, by law. The second reading of the bill is scheduled to take place on 25 November 2022.
Infertility is a disease which affects 3.5 million men and women across the UK. There is often a significant emotional and financial toll involved in seeking treatment. It is a complex process fraught with uncertainty – multiple daily injections, interminable waiting and “scanxiety”. The expense can run to thousands of pounds per IVF cycle with no guarantee of success. These factors are stressful enough on their own, let alone balanced with the demands of a busy career.
Many panellists spoke of vulnerability when broaching these issues with their employers. They feared that speaking about family planning would affect their reputation and make them appear uncommitted to their job. This fear has led many to suffer in silence. Sadly, it remains all too common to hear stories of clandestine early morning visits to clinics, taking annual leave or sick leave for appointments, or plastering on a brave face to give a big presentation after pregnancy loss. This toll to wellbeing is evidenced by statistics from Fertility Network’s 2021 survey, which found that:
· Over one-third (38%) of employees undergoing fertility treatment considered leaving their jobs;
· Over half (56%) experienced decreased job satisfaction while trying to conceive;
· One-third (36%) had to take increased sickness absence;
· 1 in 5 people (20%) did not inform their employer about having fertility treatment; and
· Nearly two-thirds (60%) of people felt the need to hide the real reason for time taken off for appointments and fertility-related illness
Dr Belinda Coker noted that these statistics are an improvement on the 2016 survey, where 30% of people did not inform their employer about having fertility treatment and 90% of respondents had depression as a result of the financial and emotional burden of infertility. However, there is clearly further work to do.
The first vital step is breaking the silence and normalising the discussion of family planning. However, a much larger wholescale cultural change is needed; one where secrecy and shame are replaced by inclusivity and openness in workplaces which celebrate family planning.
Emma Menzies explained that employers can implement this wholescale change through:
1. Openly and unequivocally acknowledging that fertility is a workplace matter;
2. Making an effort to understand what the different paths to parenthood look like, and how they relate to the workplace; and
3. Be visibly proactive in educating staff and implementing clear and accessible policies.
Education and resources should be tailored to different audiences. Everyone in an organisation should have a better understanding of the needs of those undergoing fertility treatment and learn how to listen and support their colleagues.
David Savage discussed how the queer community’s concept of ally ship can help in this respect. He believes that reverse mentoring and training can enable those in senior roles to feel solidarity and personally empathise with those struggling with infertility.
Suzanne Johnson said that fertility and pregnancy loss policies, such as those she was instrumental in implementing at Stephenson Harwood, provide a safety net. Not only does paid leave for appointments lessen the financial burden of treatment; it also alleviates the anxiety of feeling insecure in one’s role.
Burgess Mee has proudly been at the forefront of these efforts, having introduced a fertility and baby loss policy in early 2022 and pioneering the role of Fertility Officer, a position held by Natalie Sutherland. These changes send a clear signal to staff that work is a safe place to discuss fertility and family planning. Furthermore, staff are empowered to use these policies and resources to make sure they have exactly the assistance they need for their own circumstances. I can personally attest to the material difference these policies made for me when I was given the encouragement and flexibility I needed to freeze embryos. The ability to openly discuss appointments and have appropriate cover in place allowed me to navigate the experience with dignity and support. Experiences like mine should be the norm and not the exception.
In sharing their own personal stories and insight into tangible actions that can lessen the pain and isolation of infertility, the panel are making a meaningful difference in driving positive change.