Women going through IVF ‘are hiding fertility treatment from their bosses’

Women are hiding their IVF treatment from their employers as they are scared of losing their jobs, new research reveals.

More than half of women who undergo IVF do not feel able to tell their employer, according to a new survey of 250 women who had the fertility treatment.

The research, which looked at the reasons for this, found almost a third of women believe that disclosing their IVF status would put their job at risk, while more than a quarter feel their commitment to the job would be questioned.

One in five women said the most difficult aspect of balancing IVF treatment with work is being forced to take annual leave for appointments, the research by insurer Zurich found.

More than half of women who undergo IVF do not feel able to tell their employer, according to a new survey of 250 women who had the fertility treatment

The survey revealed 12 per cent of women going through IVF are quitting their careers due to a lack of support from their employer, with nearly one in seven taking on lower paid roles.

Women in same sex relationships were twice as likely to take a demotion as those in heterosexual relationships, it also found.

More than 50,000 UK women undergo IVF treatment annually, according to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA).

IVF – which stands for in vitro fertilisation – is a medical procedure in which an egg is removed from the woman’s ovaries and fertilised with sperm in a laboratory, before being implanted to the woman’s womb to grow and develop.

It is one of several techniques available to help people with fertility problems have a baby.

For most people, one cycle of IVF will take between four and six weeks, according to HFEA.

Experiences of IVF can vary between women depending on various factors, such as their natural cycle or hormones. This can result in an unpredictable process which some women believe will be difficult to explain to their employers.

Although most women do not feel able to tell their employer about their IVF, 64 per cent of those who did said it made their overall treatment experience easier, the survey found.

However, in some cases, people who chose to discuss their IVF status at work opened themselves to invasive or misinformed comments from their colleagues and managers.

These included insinuations that they were ‘too old’ or ‘too young’ for treatment, or that they could have avoided the need for IVF with better lifestyle changes.

Jog Hundle, a partner at employment law specialists Mills & Reeve, said there needs to be ‘more development’ in the law to protect women at work in these positions, as ‘there is no statutory right to have time off for IVF treatment’.

Who gets free IVF on the NHS? 

IVF is only offered on the NHS if certain criteria are met.

In 2013, the NICE published fertility guidelines that made recommendations about who should have access to the treatment on the NHS in England and Wales.

However, individual NHS Clinical Commissioning Groups make the final decision about who can access it in their local area, and their criteria may be stricter.

According to NICE, women aged under 42 should be offered three cycles of IVF treatment on the NHS if:

  • They’ve been trying to get pregnant through regular unprotected sex for two years.
  • They’ve not been able to get pregnant after 12 cycles of artificial insemination.
  • If tests show that IVF is the only treatment likely to help you get pregnant, you should be referred for IVF straight away.

Source: NHS Choices

‘There is nothing in law, at this moment, to support a couple or an individual to have IVF. The only way is if the employer has chosen to support the employees voluntarily,’ she said.

‘Forward-looking employers have policies and at their discretion, they will allow employees to have paid time off for treatments like IVF, but it’s very much within the discretion of a good employer to provide that support.’

More than half of women who didn’t disclose their treatment said they would have been more willing to do so if their company had enhanced leave policies in place, the survey found.

Tone Jarvis-Mack, chief executive of The Fertility Foundation, said it was ‘important for anyone undergoing IVF treatment and worried about this affecting their job to find out if there is a workplace policy’.

He said: ‘This would alleviate some of the additional stress of having to explain to their boss the short notice they may need to give to attend appointments or even some additional time off to cope with the emotional and physical stress they are going through.’

In partnership with community interest company Fertility Matters at Work, Zurich is calling on the Government to make access to IVF leave a requirement for all companies, bringing it in line with other medical and pregnancy-related leave in the UK.

Steve Collinson, chief HR officer at Zurich UK said: ‘The journey to starting a family is unique to everyone, but regardless of how a person chooses to become a parent they should never fear losing their job or being left to feel unsupported in the workplace.

‘IVF treatment can be emotionally and physically stressful, and the length of the process can mean that women open themselves up to difficult conversations or even discrimination much earlier than those who are able to conceive naturally.

‘Enshrining IVF leave as a right for all women won’t solve the whole problem, but it is a huge step towards ensuring that IVF is better understood and more sensitively handled in the workplace.’

Professor Geeta Nargund, medical director of CREATE Fertility, said: ‘The fact that more than half of women do not feel comfortable telling their employer about their IVF treatment underlines the sad truth of a gender health gap in UK workplaces.

‘It is unacceptable that women’s concern over reproductive health issues and fertility treatment are being silenced through fear of not just stunting career progression, but of losing their job entirely for seeking the treatment they need.

‘IVF treatment is not a holiday, a lifestyle choice or something to be ashamed of; it is a vital medical treatment. Women going through IVF need support from their employers, rather than facing the added pressure of how their managers will react.

‘Training and education for HR leaders and line managers is a key first step, as open and educated conversation can be a powerful tool to unravel taboo. 

‘It is important that we build on momentum as the workplace is continuing to be revolutionised post-pandemic and the government’s Women’s Health Strategy is moving women’s health issues up on the political agenda.’

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