Should Employers Give you Time off to Attend Fertility Treatment Doctor Visits and to Recover

Infertility treatment causes many concerns for affected couples. Will I ever be able to have a child? Will it hurt? What if it doesn’t work? These questions are often enhanced by another dimension often not considered until a decision to go ahead with treatment has been taken. This question is how to be able to combine working full time with the time investment required during treatment.

By law infertility is not accepted as a medical condition that allows you to have time off work. You don’t suffer physical pain and not having treatment does not mean that you have physical issues. It cannot be regarded as a mental health issue neither as whilst the inability to conceive children and unsuccessful treatment can result in mental issues such as depression, the need for infertility treatment is not caused by mental health issues.

By employment law infertility is compared with a nose job or breast enhancement. You are not physically ill nor mentally ill and whilst treatment can make your life better and make you more confident, there is no ‘harm done’ in the eyes of the law by not having the treatment.

This view and positioning of infertility treatment leaves the question open why employers should have to give you time off for treatment. You are not ill, but it is a treatment you choose to do because you want to, not because you have to.

On the other side some employers do appreciate that the inability to have children on your own is a major strain on affected employees. Some employers are now showing their sympathy and support by allowing employees a certain number of days off per year to go to treatment and doctor appointments. This is a major step forward in achieving a certain level of acceptance of infertility treatment in the workplace.

However, everyone who ever went through infertility treatment knows that the common 3 or 5 days per year are not sufficient to cover treatment. There will be periods were you have to see the nurses or specialists 3 times a week. You will be off ill for at least 1 week if not 2 following egg retrieval and embryo transfer. And if the first attempt is not successful, which it often isn’t, you’ll have further attempts throughout the year either of full treatment cycles or short cycles if any embryos have been frozen.

Once you tell your employer that you need time off for fertility treatment you bring yourself in a very difficult position if you need more than the allowed time off. You might have to wait a year until you are allowed more treatment days under your employment contract. Or you have to ‘throw sickies’ to cover the additional days knowing that your employer is well aware of the true reason and could refuse you payment for these days.

By claiming these ‘treatment days’ you also know that your employer is aware of your attempts to become pregnant which can have a negative impact on your career. Of course an employer can’t discriminate against you for trying for a baby, but if you have many sick-days this could be a reason negatively affect your career or even risk your employment.

Looking back at my own fertility treatment I believe that employers should be more supportive. Fertility treatment is a highly stressful time and by having to constantly invest reasons why you are late for work (for another scan to check the development of your ovaries) or another few days off with a headache / flat tyre / broken washing machine or last minute holidays for embryo transfer only adds to the stress of treatment and adds the fear of repercussions at the workplace to your long list of worries. And stress reduces your chances to succeed, so you get stressed about getting stressed as well.

But looking at it from an employer point of view I also find it difficult to justify why employers should allow you paid time off for treatment. There are many couples who have stress related issues to conceive and they could claim their need for extra holidays to reduce stress and improve work-life balance to improve their chances to conceive naturally. An employer would be forced to pay you for extra days off which will (hopefully) result in you becoming pregnant, having even more time off for antenatal care and finally having to recruit a maternity cover for you. The financial strain could be immense and it could be difficult to justify the special treatment you receive to other employees. After all, you won’t die if you don’t get treatment.

As much as the infertility patient in my heart screams…

 “Employers should give you as much time off as you need for treatment because being told that you won’t be able to have children otherwise can break your heart and spirit and you truly feel that it is not a question of wanting treatment but of desperately needing treatment.”

My managerial self contradicts…

“It would not be fair against others. The cost would be prohibitive. Where would you draw the line, i.e. how many attempts are reasonable? The law does not insist on this, so why should I as employer carry the burden.”

In my view a good employer understands his employees and shows their support. If an employee feels treasured and confident enough to admit their issue and that they will go through treatment then the company can do many things to support the employee by accepting frequent doctor appointments without in-depth questioning and allowing the employee to make up the time on other days. Employees will be grateful and will not abuse the freedom they are given.

On the other hand, if an employee feels that he is likely to harm their career by admitting to their situation they will not take up any ‘legal’ time off for treatment that companies would offer. Once you admitted to it you only have that many days to play with. By keeping it secret you have more flexibility in obtaining the occasional day off and following embryo transfer or egg retrieval your doctor is likely to give you a sick note for a post-op recovery anyway, so you can invent any reason you like for your absence.

So, should employers be required to give time off for infertility treatment? I don’t think there is a clear answer anyone can give. A sensible employer supports their employees when they are going through a dramatic personal situation such as infertility treatment, but the level of support they can give depends on the company, the job, the individual and the situation and apart from an unlikely change in legislation this has to be down to the employer – employee relationship.