13.11.18

Why and when I took time off work for IVF

When I was first diagnosed with infertility I was coming to what I thought would be the end of a career break. The previous year I had decided to take some time off after a stressful job combined with planning my wedding and completing my Master’s degree meant that I had more or less burned out.

Why and when I took time off work for IVF

The idea at the time was that once our wedding was over and I had graduated, I would begin looking for work again. My job as a Senior Contracts Engineer within the oil and gas sector was one I was well experienced in so I didn’t think I would have any problem picking up work again.I had always loved work and my career was very important to me. Prior to infertility I liked to think of myself as a strong and confident woman who was good at her job and I always had ambition to rise to the top of my profession as soon as I could. However, this was all put on the back burner once infertility came our way.

 

Once we had gone through the various consultations and initial procedures with our fertility clinic and had decided that we would go ahead with IVF, it didn’t make any sense for me to continue looking for a job. I knew that I would need some time off during the IVF cycle and whilst an employer that you had worked with for some time and had a relationship with should be ok with giving you the necessary time off, I didn’t think it was fair for me to commence a new position and then immediately say I needed an unplanned amount of time off. The other aspect of course was that I had no idea how I was going to feel during the cycle. I was scared that I had underestimated how much it might impact my life.

 

When we went through our first IVF cycle, overall, I felt relieved that I wasn’t working. The hormones injections had made me feel pretty awful and despite the egg retrieval not being as painful as I had anticipated, I knew that there was no way I could have shown up to work and actually attempted to carry out meaningful tasks. Also, during the 2-week wait, despite not having anything to do as such, my mind was continually working over-drive. I know there was no way I would have been able to cope with my demanding job which necessitated your brain always being in gear and continually have to converse with individuals about important matters. I think if I’d had a position where I was able to go in and almost hide behind a desk all day without any pressures, or a job where I worked alone, it wouldn’t have been so bad. But in my profession, you weren’t allowed an “off” day; you had to be on the ball 24/7. I knew that there was no way I would have managed to cope with that as well as the stress of IVF.

 

I also felt that I wouldn’t have wanted my colleagues knowing about our fertility struggles. I worked in a predominantly male environment and whilst I work alongside men very well, there can often be more of a no-nonsense attitude in men than there is in women. They don’t want to hear about your problems, they just want you to come in and do the job. I was afraid of being judged, of appearing to be weak when I had always been so strong; a “ball buster” to quote one of my colleagues. Whilst I knew I would have had their absolute support and understanding if I had appeared one day and said I had a terrible illness, I wasn’t so sure they would understand the seriousness of infertility and would think of it just as “women’s problems”.

The subsequent failure of our first cycle as well as our second IVF round which resulted in a miscarriage further confirmed to me that I was right to not go back to work. The amount of time I would have needed off would have just added another layer of guilt that I was being unfair to my employer, not to mention the fact that even months after the miscarriage I was still in such a state of depression, I couldn’t have even considered getting out of bed every day and plastering on a happy face.

In hindsight however, despite what I’ve said above, there is a part of me that thinks I might have coped better, particularly after the miscarriage if I had been working. Yes, I would have needed a considerable amount of time off, just even for my physical self to feel half normal again, but I can’t help thinking that distraction was probably what I needed most of all. Just to get out of the house and think about something else other than our awful experience.  Sometimes you just need a break from your own thoughts, and I do feel like I might have benefited from that and perhaps recovered from the miscarriage emotionally and mentally a lot quicker.

Unfortunately, however, it’s often proved rather difficult for people undergoing fertility treatment to gain the understanding and support from their employers. Actually being open enough to tell an employer in the first place can be a huge challenge for some; as like I said, they’re scared of being judged or they’re worried that their career may be disrupted or unfairly altered because of their need for time off.

A survey carried out by Fertility Network UK in 2016 titled ‘Fertility Network UK Survey on the Impact of Fertility Problems’ reported some disappointing results with regards to employers’ reactions to employee’s requesting time off for fertility treatment. I have bullet pointed a few of the main findings below:

  • Only one quarter of respondents reported the existence of a supportive workplace;
  • 59% felt that their employer would benefit from education/support to help them better understand the needs of someone having treatment;
  • Only one quarter of respondents reported the existence of a supportive workplace policy;
  • Half felt concerned that their treatment would affect their career prospects;
  • A third felt their career was actually damaged as a result of treatment.

These findings clearly identify the need for further workplace support as well as education for employers to help them understand what their employee is going through. Whilst there is clearly changes to be made in this area, it is a vital step that these failings have been identified and hopefully employers are willing to work with their employees to ensure their work/treatment balance can be managed in the best way possible.

Woman reassuring her friend by holding her hand during IVF appoinment

To anyone who is about to embark upon infertility treatment and thinking of giving up work altogether, whilst I can completely understand why you would wish to do it, I would advise thinking carefully before you make your final decision. If you’re in a job that you enjoy with an employer that you have a good relationship with, it may be worth having a discussion about what could potentially be worked out for you i.e. some time off for the cycle then going back on a part time basis. I think once a cycle is over and you have a negative result it’s really important to have something else to focus on. Otherwise you may possibly find yourself wallowing at home, and whilst taking time out to grieve your lost cycle is essential, it’s not healthy in the long run.

If you feel that you’ll be able to keep working throughout your IVF cycle, that’s great, however if it’s your first cycle you may have underestimated how much you will suffer physically and emotionally throughout the cycle and therefore it’s important to keep an open dialogue with your employer in case you need to request additional time off at any stage.

In my opinion being upfront and honest with your employer is the best course of action in any circumstance. Whilst I know this can be extremely difficult for people, it allows both parties to have a plan in place and means there are no surprises if you end up needing more time off than you first thought.

 

Whilst there are no statutory rights in place for employees to be given time off for fertility treatment (and therefore no laws about employees being paid whilst they’re off), employers are advised to treat it as they would for any other medical appointment under the terms and conditions of their contract of employment. You can agree between yourself and your employer the terms of the time off, i.e. whether it will be paid up until a point and then unpaid etc. Or if you want to return on a part time basis you can agree upon some flexible working that will suit your appointments.

 

Whatever the scenario, just be aware that employers are heavily advised to be sympathetic in these circumstances, so don’t feel guilty or ashamed if you decide to keep working but need time off. IVF is a huge ordeal to go through and nobody ever knows what the outcome will be so it’s hard to plan weeks in advance. Just keep your employer clued in on what’s happening and they will hopefully allow you the time you need.

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