A fertility expert is calling for better policies in the workplace to support women, which she says will help close the gender health gap.

Medical Director at CREATE Fertility and Senior NHS Consultant, Dr Geeta Nargund held a survey earlier this year, which found UK employers are not delivering appropriate workplace policies to support women’s reproductive healthcare needs.

The survey was developed by CREATE Fertility, one the UK’s IVF providers, and Cityparents, an organisation supporting working parents and professionals in corporate roles. It collected both quantitative and qualitative data on the state of UK workplace policies for those going through reproductive health issues.  

There is gender health inequality in the workplace

The UK has suffered decades of gender health inequality, says the report, as identified in the Government’s recent ‘Vision for Women’s Health Strategy’. It found many respondents either did not have – or were not aware of – any specific workplace policies to support those suffering from miscarriage, the menopause or infertility. 

Dr Nargund says Covid has fast-tracked a focus on HR and trends towards enhanced perks and support for employee mental and physical health. However this has not extended to women’s health. 

 “Our research as the national charity 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,” said Gwenda Burns, chief executive of patient-focused charity, Fertility Network UK.

She said: “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 – this is bad for both staff and business.  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”

Concerningly, many workers have told the charity that on discovering their IVF treatment, their employer treated it like a lifestyle choice, rather than a medical need. This meant that it was treated in the same way as a cosmetic procedure, and employees having to use either annual or unpaid leave.

All employers need a menopause policy

The survey results showed that more than half of employers (48 %) have no official policy in place to support employees undergoing IVF treatment. This is despite the fact one in six now require the help of a fertility expert to conceive, and only 4 percent of employers provide appropriate training for HR directors or line managers.  

For those facing miscarriage, only 12 percent of employees surveyed were allowed time off for a miscarriage before it becomes a legal maternity right at 24 weeks. 

More than 60 percent of women said they would feel uncomfortable talking to a line manager or supervisor if menopausal symptoms were impacting their performance at work. 

Concerningly, almost 90 percent of employers did not provide any sort of menopause policy for women – this, the report says is shocking, when a study in 2019 found 14 million workdays were lost to the UK each year due to menopause symptoms.

Commenting on the findings, Dr Geeta Nargund, said: “Infertility is defined by the World Health Organisation as a disease, yet as our survey shows it is not regarded in the same way as other essential medical issues. The number of women and couples using IVF continues to rise and for same-sex couples or single women fertility treatment is often essential to starting a family. 

 

Women’s health needs to be a global priority

With the Department of Health now developing a strategy to improve women’s health outcomes, Dr Nargund, says women need to be supported in the workplace through their life course events, from menstruation to menopause. This, she says, will help close the gender health gap. 

She suggests that managers and HR Staff get womens’ health training to better create workplace strategies to support women through menopause symptoms. She also says women should be supported through their fertility journeys with paid leave and partial funding.

According to Dr Nargund, menopause training would benefit HR and managers to better support their staff. She says fertility treatment is largely overlooked and pregnancy loss is largely ignored. This, she says, also needs to be changed especially as now 53,000 patients now undergo IVF each year. 

In her research, respondents told Dr Nargund, they were unable to share their fertility treatment journey with managers. Those who do, did not receive a clear understanding of what support or time off may be needed. This led to feelings of loneliness and isolation during an already difficult time.

Dr Nargund said: I would like to see more employers 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. 

“To tackle this and all the women’s health issues touched on in our survey, it is vital that all employers and HR professionals 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.”

She also called for more support and flexibility for women who needed to make essential appointments.