'I told my boss I was having fertility treatment. Here's how she reacted when I miscarried at work'

·7-min read

When WH polled our community, 57% of those who struggle with a hormonal or gynaecological condition told us they believe it has harmed their career.

That’s why we’re taking a close, critical look at how female health issues - everything from endometriosis, fibroids and PMDD to fertility treatment and (peri)menopause - affect our working lives.

How did we get here? What does it feel like? And how do we make meaningful change? This is Women’s Health at Work.

Lily* stares ahead, blankly, at the park near her home in the north east of England. Her left hand holds a dog lead, her seat is on a wooden bench, and in her gut swirl feelings of defeat and disbelief. The tears come and she’s grateful for the lack of fellow dog walkers.

Just an hour previously she’d began to miscarry at work. She's still bleeding heavily into a sanitary pad. It was the crushing culmination of not only the first round of IVF treatment, but over a year of trying, and failing, to conceive. And to make matters worse, the local government administrator, then 30, had to be back online in a matter of minutes.

Lily had never been that fussed about what path her career would take. Nor did she romanticise the idea of a big white wedding when she was a little girl. Her daydreams didn’t centre on the glamour and adventure possible through amassing serious wealth. ‘I just always wanted to be a mum,’ she tells Women’s Health.

Growing up in a tight-knit family, Lily’s siblings were a decade older than her. She delighted in getting to know their children; her unique vantage point in the family enabled her to form close bonds with her cousins. All that exposure only served to calcify the maternal instinct she’s felt for so long, it was almost as if she were born with it.

Finding the right partner eluded her for years. Then, in her late twenties, she met Stephen* - mellow, loving and with aligned feelings about parenthood. He ended up proposing - so she had the wedding after all - and two years down the line, when Lily was 29 and they’d just bought their first home, they first began trying to conceive.

By the time their first wedding anniversary rolled around without Lily becoming pregnant, they decided to seek help. ‘Stephen had a low sperm count, which he beat himself up over. But it was only after we started the first round of treatment that doctors discovered I also had a low egg count - and they were poor quality - so we were doubly challenged.’

The first round of IVF - from the injections to the collection procedure and the interminable waiting - was difficult from the start. The fact that Lily and Stephen only had one embryo dialled up the stakes. Then, during the tense, two-week period after their sole embryo had been transferred, Lily began to miscarry.

‘I’d told my boss - and my colleagues - that I was undergoing fertility treatment as I didn’t want to be sneaking around,’ she tells WH. ‘That I’d been so honest added to the shock I felt over how she reacted.’

‘I was asked: “do you want to carry on from here or do you want to go home and log on?”,’ Lily recalls. ‘I thought because my boss was a woman - and a mother - she’d display a bit more compassion.'

'I didn’t need a fuss or any grand gestures. But if she had just said “go home and let us know what you need” it would have made the whole experience considerably less traumatic.'

Ultimately, Lily had to log on, from home, after her lunch break to complete her day’s tasks (‘none of which were urgent’) while she continued to miscarry. And she was required to be back in the office the next day, too.

In the end, the only time she had to process what had just happened were the hours after she’d logged off for the day, when she crawled under the covers to sob.

‘Those few hours of my time meant very little to my team, in terms of my output, but they were some of the most painful of my entire life. My mental health was already poor, but this made me feel broken,’ she recalls.

‘Everyone around me was getting pregnant easily while my dream was shattered. That I received no support in a workplace where I’d been employed for years - and had disclosed what I was going through - made me feel extremely isolated. And almost foolish for thinking that my employer cared about me as a person.’

Just as Lily and Stephen were keen to get going with their second round of IVF, Covid-19 lockdowns landed across the UK and fertility treatments were put on ice. Lily sank lower and lower: there was no communication with their doctor and news of new pregnancies continued to pop up across WhatsApp group chats and her social feeds.

Every announcement made Lily withdraw further, and need to come up with new excuses to shirk daily walks, outside coffee dates and, later, rule of six park hangs.

The pandemic-enforced physical distance from her workplace did end up being helpful, though. Lily was able to start work earlier so she could afford longer lunch breaks, when she’d make the short drive to her father’s farm. The purposeful, physical work helped Lily to work through the maelstrom of emotions that had become lodged within her mind and body.

While there is no way of proving it, she suspects these - peaceful, fortifying - moments played a not insignificant role in her next round of IVF being successful - despite less-than-hopeful projections by her doctors.

Yes, this story has a happy ending: a daughter born in the summer of 2021. ‘We always say that judging from her personality now - spirited and seriously resilient - we get the sense there was no way she was ever not going to make it,’ Lily smiles.

But amidst the joy (and many struggles) that come with finally becoming a mum, Lily still feels deep frustration over what happened when she lost her first pregnancy.

‘A big thing for me was my manager being completely clueless as to what fertility treatment involves. Of course, not everyone is going to have firsthand experience and I didn’t expect her to be the font of all knowledge on the matter. But surely I wasn’t being unreasonable to expect her to understand the basics?’

A key lesson the experience has taught Lily is that, when you’re dealing with fertility issues, simply expecting bosses - of whatever gender; parents or child-free - to behave in a compassionate way isn’t enough.

‘I would like to see more support; more clear rules around it that are clearly communicated by HR. When I started looking into adoption, my employer had policies in place for taking leave when going through that process. Why is it not the same for those undergoing fertility treatment?'

'Why did I have to take sick leave for my appointments? And why was there no clear procedure that my manager could have followed to avoid making this awful experience even more painful?'

‘What happened not only affected not only my relationship with my manager, but how much I give to my job. I used to be extremely conscientious about ensuring I’d completed everything before I finished for the day - replying to every email and staying late to finish tasks,’ says Lily.

‘But now I don’t. If I want to go and pick up my little girl, why should I put myself out above and beyond my hours for someone who didn’t support me - and, frankly, didn’t even try - when I was trying to get pregnant?'

*Names have been changed to protect identities

Fertility at work: What are your rights, currently?

Currently, there is no provision to support those going through fertility treatment. However, 22 June saw the reading of Nickie Aiken MP’s Private Member’s Bill (PMB) - Fertility Treatment: Employment rights Bill - in parliament. The PMB will focus on introducing employment rights specifically for fertility treatment, in particular, statutory rights for time off to attend appointments.

According to a new report by Fertility Matters At Work, the demand is high. Almost three-quarters of those going through fertility treatment said they felt fertility was not recognised and valued as a topic in their organisation (74%), and 61% did not feel confident talking to their employer about trying for a baby.

This is despite 50,000 people going through fertility treatment each year and fertility rates globally declining - making it highly likely that most organisations will have employees experience fertility issues.

For more information visit fertilitymattersatwork.com

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