April 18–24 is National Infertility Awareness Week. Despite the fact 1 in 8 couples have trouble building their families, there’s still a stigma around infertility, and many people don’t know how to support their colleagues or friends experiencing it. In this webinar, we discuss how managers can support their employees with infertility and anyone who is struggling to build their family.
How to Support Your Employees During Their Family Building Journey
Wednesday, April 21, 2021, 2:00pm ET
- Host, Lissa Kline, LCSW, SVP Member & Provider Services, Progyny
- Natalie Crawford, MD, Reproductive Endocrinologist and co-founder of Fora Fertility
- Philip Schmidt, Small Business Specialist at LinkedIn and Progyny Member
Infertility in the Workplace
Like many offices (when we were in the office), at Progyny we would celebrate big birthdays, promotions, and expecting parents—but you may not know how difficult that can be for people struggling to build their families. Infertility was officially recognized as a disease in by both the World Health Organization and the American Medical Association in 2017 and incidences are rising. 1 in 8 couples experience infertility but many people who don’t experience it know little about the disease.
Going through infertility is a physically and emotionally difficult experience: stress, anxiety, and depression are all common psychological side effects. These effects, coupled with the physical strain that accompanies standard fertility treatment, can substantially impact an employee’s productivity, energy, and overall mental health. As managers, employers and people leaders, we know you want to support your employees however you can.
Do you have vocal employees in your organization who have shared their struggles? If you haven’t been hearing from your employees about infertility, it not that they aren’t experiencing, but rather they may be not comfortable sharing it or feeling alone. Think of the person who is leaving earlier to skip a baby shower, gets quiet around discussions about children, or may be more withdrawn at work. Infertility doesn’t discriminate and we want you to have the tools to support your employees on the path to parenthood.
Fertility Treatments and its Side Effects
Infertility is incredibly common—more common than diabetes—but is rarely spoken about until someone enters the infertility community. Dr. Crawford has found many more enter her office, for a variety of reasons. The CDC defines infertility as not being able to get pregnant (conceive) after one year (or longer) of unprotected sex, or 6 months of unprotected sex for women aged 35 years or older. However, this presumes the patient is able to have regular periods and is able to have intercourse. For many people this isn’t true.
Someone will want to seek care earlier if:
- Sex is difficult.
- They have had surgery on your ovaries.
- They have an abnormal egg count or premature menopause runs in their family.
- Periods are extremely painful or irregular.
- They are a woman who is 40 or older and want to start a family.
- They are in a same sex relationship or are a single-parent-by-choice.
Infertility isn’t an issue specific to a particular sex. A third of infertility is male factor, a third is female factor, and a third is unexplained.
Common causes of female factor infertility include:
- Irregular ovulation, sometimes caused by hormonal diseases like PCOS or endometriosis.
- Tubal factors, often from prior sexually transmitted infection, endometriosis or prior surgery.
- Uterine fibroids or scar tissue.
- Low ovarian reserve.
- Unexplained infertility.
Common causes of male factor infertility include:
- Low sperm count.
- Sperm quality.
- Motility (movement).
- Morphology (shape).
- Inability to maintain an erection or ejaculation.
- Unexplained fertility.
Every person is different and there is no umbrella treatment for everyone. Although there can be many causes of infertility, there are only a few treatment options available.
During any assisted reproductive technology cycle, a patient visits the office for baseline monitoring procedures almost every day for about two weeks. Although the appointments aren’t long, they have to be in-person and can be disruptive to a work schedule.
It’s also important to note that these treatment options can have uncomfortable side effects. IVF and egg freezing involve daily injected hormones, which can cause bloating, local discomfort, fatigue, mood changes, or irritability. Some medications can cause headaches or insomnia. Although these medications are only taken for a couple of weeks, they can cause major discomfort and you may notice someone going through it may be acting differently. Providing your employees with extra support can go a long way during this time.
Fertility treatment takes time. Even for someone that falls pregnant during their first cycle of IVF, the process takes around four months. A woman 35 and younger will have a 30–50% success rate per cycle, so if it doesn’t work, the cycle will begin again.
The Emotional Cost of Infertility
Infertility is an incredibly stressful experience. 55% of people feel infertility is more stressful than unemployment and 61% feel it is more stressful than divorce. Even if a someone is starting fertility treatments for the first time, they most likely have experienced the disappointment and strain of failing to conceive naturally for one to two years.
Dr. Crawford admitted is a very hard process, especially because it is an experience you can’t control. She noted it is important for patients to empower themselves along the journey. Firstly, they can do this by learning about fertility and arming themselves with the knowledge about what to expect on the fertility journey. Asking questions is very important, and it’s often helpful to prepare them ahead of time so they don’t forget anything. If their care team isn’t answering their questions or is brushing their concerns aside, it may be worth exploring a different provider. Finding communities of support is also a huge help. They are not the only person going through this—they may just be missing the community of those who have experienced it around them. Whether they can find support in person or online, it’s incredibly important they don’t feel isolated.
Philip’s Family Building Journey
Philip and his wife experienced multiple pregnancies losses over several years. Although they had no issues getting pregnant, maintaining a pregnancy was difficult and were initial diagnosed with unexplained infertility. After multiple rounds of IVF, they discovered they were experiencing poor egg quality, which was causing pregnancy loss.
Philip found the family building process very stressful. He felt he had to be the rock in the relationship, but found it was weighing on him and he was struggling mentally. Thankfully Philip works for LinkedIn, which offers the Progyny benefit, and not only did he have the support of his dedicated Patient Care Advocate, but LinkedIn itself did a great job at supporting him. He joined the Families at LinkedIn employee resources group, which was a great space to discuss his infertility and adoption journey and offered an immediately supportive community.
However, for Philip the biggest support came in the form of his manager. She knew about his fertility journey and anticipated his needs, including letting him work from home on mentally tough days. She also offered him flexibility to go to fertility appointments. Being open with her was very important because it allowed her the knowledge to support him in his journey.
Philip’s advice for someone going through fertility is that if you don’t let your employer know what’s going on, it may lead to further questions and you may find you are getting judgement rather than support. If you are not comfortable disclosing your fertility troubles, you can always let them know you and your family are going through a medical issue. You do not need to provide further details if you are not comfortable with it.
Philip and his wife now have two children—one through IVF and one through adoption.
What You Can Do to Support Your Employees on Their Family Building Journeys
A good support system can make a huge difference—including at work. There are a few steps a HR/benefits executive or manager can make to support their team.
Vocalize your awareness and try to create an open and supportive environment.
At a team meeting, mention you are aware of medical conditions that require some level of accommodation. Speak to team members individually and check in on them or publicly announce your support for those experiencing infertility or pregnancy loss.
Offer flexible work hours.
Allow scheduling changes (or telecommuting) to enable employees to adjust their hours temporarily during a treatment cycle.
Organize or suggest the employee to organize a support group.
Patients going through fertility treatment generally agree that only others going through the same journey really understand. Privately offer to organize a group for discussion and support or tap into an existing parent’s group or affinity group, like a diversity or women’s group. The group can be open to all employees, anyone with a medical challenge, anyone going through a loss, or just for infertility.
Provide outbound education and support.
Because the stigma of infertility often prevents people from disclosing their illness, it is vital for companies to proactively offer educational resources, support, and communication to their workforce. As part of this communication strategy, be sure to provide the option to access information and resources in a private, anonymous manner and be sure to include any information on benefits your company may have for parents and parents to be.
Keep track of thoughtless comments that can be offensive to someone going through infertility.
If you know someone on your team is struggling with infertility and you are complaining about being up all night because of your baby, that can be hurtful, even if you didn’t intend it that way. As a leader be aware the words you say impact the people around you.
Philip’s Strong Support Team at Work
Philip’s manger was a great example of someone doing the right thing for an employee during their family building journey. She knew the stress he was under and would take things off his plate during the arduous adoption journey. Because of the nature of adoption there is a lot of time sensitive paperwork for each case. When Philip would find out about a prospective child to adopt, he would immediately have to focus his attention on that and leave work—and his manager was completely understanding. She would also deflect questions from other employees about his absences and made them aware he was under a lot of stress and doing a good job.
Because both the success of adoption and IVF is uncertain, Philip and his wife were going through their third round of IVF when they were matched with a baby boy through adoption. A week after matching, the baby came home with them—and then they discovered they were eight weeks pregnant. They now have two babies seven months apart and are thrilled with their family.
However, at the time of matching with their first child they were completely taken by surprise. They had no nursery and no baby items, and had leagues of paperwork to successfully adopt. One day at work he was filling out the forms needed and felt on the verge of an emotional breakdown, when his boss noticed his stress and sent him home to focus on his family. His team immediately stepped up and support him too.
You can also ask your employees directly what they need from you during the infertility journey.
Progyny is always here to support you and your employees on their family building journeys. If your company offers Progyny fertility benefits, be sure to reach out to better understand what we can do to help support you and your workforce. Be sure to check out additional resources progyny.com/education.
We are thankful to our employer partners as they continue to support their employees with infertility. If your company doesn’t offer fertility benefits, please visit progyny.com/talktohr to learn how you can advocate for fertility coverage.