When you are about to embark on the long journey to motherhood through assisted reproductive technology (or in simpler terms fertility treatment, often in the form of IUI, ICSI or IVF) you are likely to worry about many things. Apart from fear of the treatment and potential failure, you will consider the time commitment required during treatment, the frequent doctor visits and sick days. You will also think of emotional mood swings and off-days when you cannot see the point of going to work at all because you can’t think of anything but your maybe-baby anyway.
So it is no surprise that many women starting treatment worry about their employment and employer. Can you keep your treatment a secret? Or should you tell them? What are the consequences of your decision?
Your decision will depend on many factors such as the law of your country, any regulations within your company, your personal situation and the trust you place in your manager or employer.
In most countries (if not all) infertility treatment is not considered as an illness and employees have no right for sick days to cover the treatment or extra time for the frequent doctor appointments. As a first step in your decision if you want to tell your employer about your treatment or not you should identify the legal situation in your country.
If employers do not have to authorise you to take leave (paid or unpaid) for your treatment it can be a risky decision to tell them. If your employer refuses you leave this can jeopardise your treatment as appointments cannot always take place outside of working hours and certain steps of the treatment such as egg retrieval or embryo transfer have to take place on a certain date (which you’ll probably only know shortly before) and cannot be delayed to work with your employers staffing issues and holiday rota.
By not telling your employer you can just ‘have a migraine’ or a ‘terrible cold’ and take the required day off. But if you ask your employer for leave for your treatment and are refused you either have to cancel treatment (which would be costly, but more importantly emotionally devastating) or take unauthorised leave which could in a worst case scenario lead to disciplinary action at work and dismissal.
Some companies have accepted in recent years that infertility is increasingly common and treatment can be vital to an employee’s mental well-being. Therefore many larger companies have introduced internal regulations and policies that define how infertility treatment is handled to ensure fairness across employees. If in existence, this might authorise employees to unlimited leave as long a doctor appointment cards can be presented, but it can also limit the authorised leave to a few days per year. Again, you will need to consider what this means to you. Will the policy give you enough flexibility to achieve treatment? What if the first treatment is not successful – will you have a right for further time off for additional attempts within the same calendar year?
Telling your employer can be a huge burden taken off you especially if you are not used to telling lies and don’t like doing it. But you will have to consider if risking running out of time for treatment is worth keeping a clean conscience. On the other side, if you already have a high number of sick days it might be crucial to be honest with your employer. Knowing the reason for the absences they might be prepared to agree a compromise such as flexible working hours during treatment cycles with you, avoiding you to get into trouble with regards to your high absence levels and temporarily decreasing level of focus and motivation.
Even if your employer is very flexible with regards to your leave requirements during treatment you might have to consider a more personal level in your decision to advice your manager of the treatment. Your employer is not allowed to discriminate against you for trying to have a baby. However, the reality can be different. If your manager knows that you are under this personal pressure he might try to be supportive by not giving you any more challenging tasks, thus inadvertently restricting your career development. At the same time you might be overlooked for promotions as your manager thinks that either you wouldn’t be able to focus on your career during this stressful time or because he assumes that you’ll be pregnant and off on maternity leave very soon anyway. For anyone who hasn’t experienced infertility themselves it can be difficult to understand that your career opportunities might be more important to you than ever. It is something that you can control. And if treatment won’t be successful you might only have your career to give you a real purpose in life. Therefore you have to consider your managers attitude to pregnancy, work-life balance and career development prior to taking a decision. If you are not sure how your manager will react, but want to be honest with your employer it might be the best option to discuss this in privacy with your HR department and advise of your concerns of informing your direct manager. They will advise you how to proceed and will take extra care that you are not discriminated against.
And finally you will need to consider how you feel about people, employers and colleagues knowing about your treatment. Whilst infertility in most cases is nobody’s fault, patients often feel a sense of shame. In addition there can be an intense fear of failure. It is often much easier to pretend that children aren’t part of your life plan than to admit that you are unable to conceive and need medical help. And if treatment fails at least nobody knows of your perceived failure and devastation. You might not mind your best friends knowing as they can support you, but if your colleagues know there is no place left where you can pretend that everything is fine.
Taking a decision to tell your employer about infertility treatment or not is more difficult than it appears at the first look. It is a highly personal decision and it can affect your personal life as well as your career profoundly. You therefore need to find a balance between your need to be honest and fair with your employer and protection yourself, your career and your emotional well-being. Unfortunately nobody can tell you which decision is the right one for you, but by considering and facts and listening to your heart everyone will have to find the best solution for themselves.