leading fertility charity has urged employers to stop treating IVF like “a lifestyle choice” and provide better workplace policies for those who are undergoing treatment.
The Fertility Network UK said it had spoken to distressed women who discovered their employer considers IVF to be a lifestyle choice rather than a medical need.
This has resulted in it being “lumped together with things like cosmetic procedures”, meaning they are denied time off work for treatment and have to take annual or unpaid leave to attend appointments.
More than 53,000 patients now undergo IVF each year, according to data from the UK fertility regulator.
But a survey has revealed nearly half of the companies surveyed (48 per cent) have no policy in place to support employees undergoing IVF treatment.
Research showed 20 per cent of respondents were offered paid leave for IVF and 16 per cent allowed flexible working when requiring time off for appointments or to recover from treatment.
Gwenda Burns, chief executive of charity Fertility Network UK, said: “Research shows most people experiencing fertility problems are reluctant to speak to their employer about it because they fear it may have a detrimental effect on their career.
“We know too many end up reducing their hours, taking sick leave or leaving employment as a result of their fertility struggles and a lack of support and understanding from their employers.”
She continued: “It is shocking that, despite infertility being defined as a disease, the vast majority of firms do not have a workplace policy referring to fertility treatment.
“So many people have told us of their distress on discovering their employer considers having IVF to be a lifestyle choice, rather than a medical need, and lump it together with things like cosmetic procedures – with the result that employees cannot take time off work for treatment and instead have to use annual leave or unpaid leave.”
Geeta Nargund, consultant gynaecologist at London’s St George’s Hospital and fertility pioneer, also wants to see employers introduce practices that help women at all stages of their reproductive lifecycles, effectively closing the gender health gap.
She is calling on businesses to “put official policies in place to support women undergoing fertility treatments such as IVF, which involve multiple visits to fertility clinics, in order to ease their treatment burden”.
Dr Nargund, who is the medical director at CREATE Fertility, said: “It is vital that employers introduce dedicated training on how to support their employees, including making sure they feel they can approach and talk to their employer about their experiences and needs.
“More support is needed such as ensuring sufficient flexibility is introduced to allow them to make essential appointments.”
Big companies such as Unilever, Kellogg’s, Tesco, Barclays, Sony and HSBC are leading the way when it comes to such workplace initiatives by implementing policies that support women’s health, but many feel more needs to be done in this area.
Currently, loss of pregnancy that occurs past 24 weeks legally grants workers time off under their maternity rights, but just 12 per cent of women knew of policies that covered pregnancy loss before this time, such as paid leave or counselling.
The study revealed a further 44 per cent were unsure if there were any policies in place, with respondents identifying a lack of inclusive culture when it comes to talking about these issues in the workplace.
And many felt more needed to be done to support those at the end of their reproductive cycle.
The menopause is a natural part of ageing that usually occurs between 45 and 55 years of age, as a woman’s oestrogen levels decline.
Most women will experience menopausal symptoms, while some of these can be quite severe and have a significant impact on everyday activities.
The majority of firms surveyed (88 per cent) did not provide any sort of menopause policy for women, while 60 per cent of women said they would feel uncomfortable speaking to their line manager if they felt menopause symptoms was affect their work performance.
Louisa Symington-Mills, founder and chief executive of Cityparents, said the results showed “there is evidently still much progress needed around the day-to-day practical and emotional support employees need on their journeys to parenthood.”