At one point or another, most of us struggling with infertility will need to address the impact on our work. The sheer number of doctor or clinic visits alone is nearly a full-time job. Testing. Procedures. Monitoring. Not to mention the hormones, the emotional roller coaster, and the self-injections.
As much as we probably want to maintain our privacy and keep a healthy separation between our work and personal lives, the intensity of infertility treatments can make that a very difficult divide to maintain (if not impossible).
If you’re shuddering at the thought of sitting down with your boss and explaining anything related to your reproductive system, I feel you. Even if you’ve worked together for a long time and have a close relationship, this kind of personal sharing can feel vulnerable.
But it might not be as bad as you fear — it could even help lighten the pressure and stress that can come with working during this time.
Before you sit down and spill your guts to your boss, there are a few things worth considering that can make the conversation easier, and help you reach an outcome that will support you as much as possible right now.
Should I Say Something, Or Not?
Nearly half of people choose not to talk to their boss or coworkers about their infertility, according a report by Come Recommended. However, those who chose to keep this challenging medical condition to themselves tend to feel less supported at work, which can lead to negative outcomes.
An article in Forbes magazine explained that, “This perceived lack of support can negatively impact the workplace, causing 29.72% to quit, 26.85% to actively look for or be open to new job opportunities, and 31.85% to unhappily stay in their position.”
It doesn’t have to be that way.
A local TV news anchor and reporter Kaci Aitchison told Fast Company: “My husband and I learned pretty quickly that the pressure of keeping it under wraps and coming up with reasons for missing work for appointments, etc., was more stressful than just being honest. I am very lucky in that my managers were overwhelmingly supportive and worked with me.”
Going through infertility can require you to leave the office for appointments several times a week, which can cause stress, overwhelm, and disruption as you may be missing meetings and deadlines, and over time fall behind with work. Informing your boss or another key person about your personal struggles can alleviate some of this stress, and make it easier to put together a plan to address your needs and the needs of the workplace.
Think how much better you would feel if you could temporarily:
- reorganize your work schedule
- adjust your work responsibilities
- have access to extra time off
- be able to work from home
It’s common for women to fear that these concessions could jeopardize their jobs, lead their bosses to think less of them, or subject them to pregnancy-based discrimination before they are even pregnant, according to an article in Shared Journey. While the potential backlash varies widely between companies, in general there are established legal protections for women dealing with an infertility diagnosis at work.
The Shared Journey article further explains that: “The primary law that generally protects women who have suffered miscarriages or are undergoing infertility treatments—explains Dorota Gasienica-Kozak, a Pennsylvania lawyer who specializes in Assisted Reproductive Technology law—is the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. Under some circumstances, the American Disabilities Act could also apply, requiring employers to make “reasonable” accommodations to support an employee with a covered disability.”
At the end of the day, you need to use your judgement to decide whether its best to be open about your infertility treatments or not. Keep in mind, though, that sharing your struggles can make it much easier to get through this difficult time in your life.
Who Should I Tell?
Your first thought may be that you should speak with your direct boss, but that may not always be the best option. There are other choices, such as an indirect manager, a human resources representative, or a coworker, who can also help support you at work and provide a sense of relief of not being in hiding any more. You may also want to tell several groups of people, depending on the relationships you have at work and how many people you interact with on a regular basis.
It may be worth speaking with someone in your company’s HR department about your infertility. They may be able to provide you support and help you talk through how to talk to your boss and/or coworkers. Another important consideration in going to HR is that they can help you understand what your options are for taking Family Medical Leave or using flex time, and explain any potential infertility treatment benefits that you may not know about.
According to Fertility IQ, “the state of IVF reimbursement continues to be a tale of ‘haves and have nots’—with 63 percent of patients and employees receiving zero coverage and almost 20 percent receiving complete coverage.” Slate goes on to explain that “the ‘haves’ are most likely to work at large companies with robust benefits, often in industries that compete for talent, like tech, consulting or finance. Their employers often opt to expand their benefits through traditional health care companies, or contract additional fertility coverage with outside companies like Progyny.”
Resolve.org lists nine states with health insurance mandates that require employers to provide coverage for IVF treatments: Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey or Rhode Island.
If there will be big changes to your work schedule or responsibilities, you’ll likely face questions (or at least silent wondering) about what’s going on. You absences may also impact your colleagues, in terms of scheduling meetings with you or shifting deadlines as your juggle appointments and work deadlines. You may want to give a brief explanation, as needed, such as, “I’m going to be out of the office because my spouse and I are doing IVF.”
Knowing that your colleagues support you and know what you are going through can be a source of relief and help you feel a bit more positive.
First, Make a Plan
Before you speak to your boss, coming up with a plan for how you will continue to do your job while receiving infertility treatments can make the entire conversation go much easier. Your boss will be looking to you to explain what you can and cannot do, and what you need. Working all of this out in your own mind first can help your boss feel confidence in your ability to manage this turbulent period, and may make it easier for them to give you the leeway you need.
While your plan will be unique to your work situation, responsibilities, treatment plan and many other influences, you can get started with:
- Get a Clear Vision for Your Treatment Plan: Find out exactly what your individual treatment plan involves, from how many early-morning clinic visits you’ll have to how much time you’ll need off work after egg retrieval and embryo transfer. Ask your care team for recommendations that are specific to you.
- In Today’s Parent, Young Kim, a social worker with the Women’s Care Program at Victoria Hospital in London, Ontario says, “Even before someone’s cycle begins, we go over how much time she’ll need, from the worst case scenario to the best, because it really depends on the person’s treatment and how she reacts to the medication.”
- WInfertility notes that “many fertility centers, especially the larger ones, have satellite offices which can do the monitoring required, which may make it more convenient to get to your appointments. Some fertility centers have early or late hours and weekend times to help patients avoid missing work to as great an extent as possible. Make sure you know what the possibilities are, and ask for a schedule which is easier for you.”
- Map Out Your Calendar: My Fertility Coach suggests: “On a calendar, map out your fertility treatment timeline and then layer in your work commitments for the same time period. Your treatment timeline is (relatively) short-term. How can you shift work so that it fits with the treatment timeline and is part of a regular flow rather than a harsh interruptor?” If you can, schedule or prioritize projects you can become immersed in during the waiting times. For the active times, look for ways to reduce unknowns, stressful situations, and deadlines.”
- Plan Time Off: If you have personal time off available, try to anticipate what – if any – usage of it will help you feel confident that you gave this cycle your best effort.
- Plan How You Will Make Up For Lost Work Time: Come up with some concrete ideas about how you might make up for lost time if early-morning appointments run over and you’re late for work. Can you stay later? Offer to do certain tasks at home? Get a coworker to cover for you?
- Consider Busy Work Times When Scheduling Treatments: If your work schedule has predictable busy periods, try to schedule treatments for a time of the year when your work slows down a bit.
Being able to clearly explain how you expect treatments to impact your work, how you plan to address any absences, and what you need from your boss and workplace to get through this period of your life can make it easier for you – and your boss – to have a very personal discussion in a professional and productive way.
What Should I Say?
Here it is. You’ve requested a meeting in private to discuss a confidential, personal matter (prepare your boss from the beginning about what kind of conversation this will be). You’re nervously sitting in a chair in front of your boss, and open your mouth to say… what?
Here are a few suggestions to get you started:
- Keep it simple: Your employer doesn’t need to know all of the details. Only share at a level that makes you comfortable.
- Present it as a medical condition: According to the CDC, infertility is a medical condition that is about as common as breast cancer and more common than Type 2 diabetes. You could certainly share only that you have a “medical condition.” Alternately, you can explain, “I’m going through infertility treatments. It’s a medical condition and I’m working closely with my doctor to resolve it.”
- How to be vague: If you’d rather not share any details, let your employer know that the health issue you’re dealing with is serious but not life-threatening.
- Give yourself come wiggle room: If you do chose to share more details, you want to explain that for the time being, you expect that this is the course of treatment, but there is the possibility that things can change and shift.
- Hold the emotion: Try – as best you can – to keep the emotions out of this conversation.
- Express your commitment: If you do want to continue with your job, it can be helpful to express your commitment to your job and company. While you may be requesting some temporarily leeway in terms of your schedule and responsibilities, let your boss know that you expect these to be temporary and that you look forward to resuming your full commitment in the future.
- Present your plan: Explain that you have given a great deal of thought to how to balance your personal needs and work responsibilities. Explain your plan, including suggestions for scheduling, project timelines, workload balancing, etc., and ask for feedback. Be open to suggestions and questions from your boss as to the best way to support you and keep the workplace running.
Some people are comfortable going into a conversation like this with an idea of how they’d like it to go and perhaps a few notes jotted down. But you may be more comfortable writing out a script to practice in advance, or having bullet points of the points you’d like to make written down in front of you.
My Fertility Coach offered this helpful example of the conversation she held with her own manager:
“I need to let you know I’m currently trying to have a baby through IVF. It requires a lot of morning appointments. I may be later than usual on these days. The nurses call me with test results which is why I need to step out for private phone calls. Sometime next week, I’ll be out unexpectedly for a procedure [egg retrieval] and then a few days later, again for a follow up procedure
I’ve taken a look at what is going on in my schedule and here’s the plan I’ve come up with to make sure everything is accounted for…here’s what I think will need to get pushed back…and here’s my back up plan for the scheduled meetings in the event I can’t be there…”
Hopefully, you’ll find the response to your conversation to be supportive. We all wish for the boss who is also a friend and has our best interests at heart. However, at the very least you should expect respect and a willingness to find common ground to address the temporary changes you may need while you undergo treatment for a very common, and personal, medical condition.
With love & gratitude,