In March 2021, I shared my experience of living with endometriosis and working in the legal profession. Having just turned 29, 2021 sees me starting a new journey, one where I will be starting fertility treatment in order to safeguard my future.
My journey so far
After my last surgical procedure in 2019, I remember being asked outright if I was going to consider having a child and would I need fertility treatment to assist with that. In that moment, I remember being in pure shock that not only was I being questioned on whether I wanted a family, but that someone was so intent on knowing my position in regard to fertility treatment. Truth be told it had never crossed my mind until that moment but even if I had thought about those decisions, they were my choices to make.
It wasn’t until 2021 that I started to take the conversation around my own fertility more seriously. Maybe it was the pandemic, maybe it was years of not knowing how endometriosis has affected me; but as a young, single woman the conversations weren’t easy to have but they were a necessity given my history.
I can’t say the initial appointments were easy. I have struggled with the pressure and anxiety of dealing with this alone and the constant questions of will it be painful? How much time will I need to take off work? Can I afford the treatment? At times I have felt in a constant state of flux over my decision and sought the reassurance of family, friends and medical professionals countless times.
Fast forward to six months from my initial screening and I am now awaiting my first cycle of treatment; a daunting yet important moment in my life.
Fertility treatment in the workplace
A survey carried out by the Solicitors Regulation Authority in 2020 showed that almost two thirds of the legal professionals are aged between 24 and 44 years old making them of child bearing age. One in six couples in the UK are being affected by fertility issues with many reporting needing to take time off work to attend appointments. A change in how employers approach fertility in the workplace is therefore becoming a necessity.
As with condition such as endometriosis, there seems to be a stigma surrounding conversations on fertility. A fear that saying we need to seek treatment means we are almost failing but it is far from that. Having these conversations in the workplace is vital to help minimise additional pressure and stress that run concurrently with the process of undergoing fertility treatment.
It’s not just those undergoing fertility treatment that struggle in the workplace. Fertility affects us all. From those going through the treatment to those supporting a partner through the treatment, it is important that employers implement inclusive policies and support mechanisms.
We are increasingly seeing City law firms acknowledge the need to have comprehensive and inclusive policies. US firm Cooley and Magic Circle firm Clifford Chance have extended employee benefits to include funding for fertility treatment whilst Ashurst have announced what they consider to be ‘landmark’ changes to their parenting policy. Changes to policies include reimbursements for treatment, paid time off for egg freezing and surrogacy, with the policies applying to all employees and partners. In a statement Cooley confirmed that policies apply to those 'who want to have a child or preserve their fertility, including single parents by choice and LGBTQ+ individuals and couples'.
What more should we be doing?
Whilst changing internal benefit policies can assist employees financially, employers need to look beyond the monetary value and provide a more holistic approach, taking into account aspects including both mental and physical wellbeing.
Undertaking any form of fertility treatment can be a stressful and emotional process. In an already stressful profession, it is important to consider flexibility with chargeable hours targets and look to reduce workloads to help decrease stress levels during fertility treatment. This can help to alleviate pressure and assure employees that they are supported in the work place.
Employers can use the facilities of Peppy Health, a company that has created a employee healthcare benefit that helps employees access specialist support and resources. This includes resources dedicated to fertility.
It is important that employers start conversations to help employees feel supported. Webinars, charity initiatives and directing to policies are simple, yet effective measures that can reassure employees they have support when it comes to fertility.
What if you and your partner are considering fertility treatment?
Knowing your rights at work is important. A good place to start is your employer intranet or human resources department. If you don’t have a fertility policy consider reviewing parental leave policies to see if there are any provisions in place that you may be able to apply to your circumstances. Also consider understanding your employer’s absence policy for medical appointments to better understand how to take leave from work for medical reasons.
With one in six couples in the UK struggling with fertility issues it is important to remember you are not alone. Whether you are alone or going through this with a partner, starting conversations can be daunting. Looking to build a support network is key. Whether it is someone who has their own experiences, a friend, family member or a doctor, finding someone you can trust and talk to helps you start your fertility journey.
Sinéad McGrath is a member of the Junior Lawyers Division Executive Committee and the Women Lawyers Division