CIPD Voice: Issue 32


For employees experiencing difficulty conceiving or loss of a baby during pregnancy, trying to have or grow a family can be a long and difficult road – emotionally draining, physically demanding, socially challenging and financially tough. We believe support and understanding at work, from your employer, manager and colleagues can make a significant difference to someone at a difficult, and potentially traumatic, time in their life.
 
The number of employees in your organisation undertaking fertility treatment and dealing with the heartache, sadness and grief of unsuccessful attempts or losing a baby in pregnancy, including through miscarriage, ectopic and molar pregnancies and stillbirth, is likely much higher than you know. And it’s not just women who may require support; their partner’s feelings often get forgotten, and the partner may be going through fertility treatment. It’s also important to not assume someone’s personal situation or family make-up.
 
Tommy’s, a UK charity which researches the causes and prevention of baby loss, states that:
  • 1 in 4 pregnancies end in miscarriage.
  • Around 1-2 in 100 women have a miscarriage in the second trimester.
  • Around 11 in 1,000 pregnancies are ectopic.
  • 1 in 100 women in the UK experience recurrent miscarriage (3 or more in a row).
  • Shockingly, 1 in every 250 pregnancies ends in stillbirth.
  • However, more than 6 in 10 of women who have recurrent miscarriages go on to have a successful pregnancy.
Employer and manager support is essential

These issues are still not talked about in UK society in general, so the importance and benefits of a supportive work environment haven’t been widely discussed. How to support employees through fertility treatment and the loss of a baby during pregnancy will therefore not be on the radar of many employers or managers at the moment, and some may see them as personal issues. However, they can have a significant impact on an individual at work, and support is essential to help people to perform at work, and ultimately to be able to balance work demands with the requirements of fertility treatment or with recovery and grief of losing a baby in pregnancy. 
 
If employers don’t build support and awareness for employees in this situation, there’s a risk they could lose valuable skills and talent. For example, Fertility Network UK found that of the working men and women they surveyed who are either experiencing fertility struggles or have in the past, almost two-fifths (38%) had seriously considered leaving their job or had quit.  
 
The Miscarriage Association make important points about employer support, including:
  • ‘Thoughtful support and management can make a real difference to how people cope – and can enhance an employee’s motivation and commitment' [B Hayward, B Fong, A Thornton, BMRB Social Research. The third work-life balance employer survey: main findings, Department for Business Enterprise & Regulatory Reform, December 2007]. 
  • ‘As well as a good maternity and miscarriage policy, it’s important to ensure you are approachable as a manager and have the knowledge to respond appropriately and offer the right support.’
  • ‘Some people find flexibility or adjustments to their job can help them return to work more quickly’.
Furthermore, there’s evidence showing that better workplace support in this area is needed and would be welcomed by the HR profession. For example, in a 2019 poll by LinkedIn and Censuswide, 91% of 1,000 HR professionals said they would benefit from education and support to better understand employee fertility issues. Interestingly, two-thirds of HR professionals also thought fertility support in the workplace should be considered a statutory right.
 
A need for a policy framework and supportive environment

Often people are dealing with these issues in silence. For example, although the figures suggest the incidence of miscarriage is high, talking about miscarriage is still seen as a taboo in the UK. And the personal nature of fertility treatment may mean employees choose not to ask for support. 
 
In addition, people can be reluctant to tell their manager or colleagues that they are trying for a baby for fear of being overlooked for career opportunities, seen as not committed at work, or perhaps because it would be more people to tell if the treatment didn’t work or they miscarried. However, this means they can’t access the support they could benefit from. In contrast, having a clear policy in place which tells people about the support the employer can offer, can go some way to counter the barriers, if they feel their employer and their manager can be trusted to treat them fairly. In addition, a compassionate and supportive culture can make people more comfortable to ask for help, knowing they won’t be penalised for doing so.
 
The Fertility Network UK says 1 in 6 couples undergo fertility treatment but most workplaces (58%) don’t have a policy in place about fertility treatments for them to be able to get the support needed, with a further 19% of people surveyed saying they didn’t know if their employer had a policy. They say: ‘Research shows having a supportive fertility in the workplace policy is good for business and employees – levels of distress associated with fertility treatment are reduced and employees are more likely to be productive and remain in work’.

Showing compassion and understanding is key

There are many success stories, but there are also many difficult times and devastating news for people to deal with, which can be overwhelming. Meeting the usual work demands without support, compassion and flexibility can be difficult, and often unthinkable.  
 
There are the obvious practicalities of medical appointments, which may be at short notice. Individuals may be getting used to new medications, self-injecting, experiencing hormonal changes, and undergoing intrusive investigations. 
 
Going into work and performing as usual, or returning after time off, when experiencing any of these issues can be daunting and for some, the workplace can be a lonely and isolating place. Many people experiencing pregnancy loss or fertility treatment understandably don’t feel able to discuss it. It can therefore be a hidden situation and can result in, often unintentional, insensitivity towards the individual, such as colleagues asking when they are going to start a family, or pressure to hold a new baby that a colleague brings into the office. If colleagues do know about the situation, very often people don’t know what to say to someone and avoid saying anything. This can perpetuate the stigma and silence that exists.
 
Fostering a compassionate culture with explicit support for employees going through fertility treatment or pregnancy loss can help to overcome the taboo and encourage individuals to access the support they need. This means equipping line managers and the workforce more generally with the knowledge and empathy to know what to say and how to offer support when someone discloses their situation. The support required will differ for each individual according to their circumstances and needs, but offering flexibility can help someone balance work and personal demands.
 
New CIPD guidance for HR and line managers

We believe practical guidance for employers will help them to retain talented people through providing understanding, support and flexibility at a difficult stage of their life.
 
We plan to produce practical guides to help employers and line managers support employees undergoing fertility treatment or losing a baby in pregnancy. The guidance will address these issues separately but acknowledge that people may sadly experience a combination of them. 
 
The guidance aims to raise awareness of the prevalence of these issues and their impact on individuals as well as their interaction with work. We will draw on new survey data gathered in the new year to help inform the new content. We will provide an overview of each issue as well as give examples of the kinds of experiences people may have. There will be practical recommendations for HR and line managers of possible support individuals may welcome or need, including flexibility. 
 
There will also be case studies of good practice from employers leading the way in this area, as well as personal reflections of employees’ lived experience, the support they received and what has, or would have, been helpful at work. We will work with charities and organisations specialising in these areas, incorporating their insight, and aim to publish the guide mid-2022.

How can you help?

Does your organisation raise awareness about any of these issues in the workplace or provide support for employees experiencing them? If so, we’d love to have a conversation with you about what you do with the aim of including your organisation as a short case study in the guidance. Please do get in touch: with Claire Deller-Rust at claire.dellerrust@cipd.co.uk.
Jill Miller

Dr Jill Miller, Research Adviser

Jill Miller joined the CIPD in 2008. Her role is a combination of rigorous research and active engagement with policy makers, academics and practitioners to inform projects and shape thinking. She frequently presents on key people management issues, leads discussions and workshops, and is invited to write for trade press as well as offer comment to national journalists, on radio and TV. She specialises in diversity and inclusion, employee well-being, people management in SMEs and future HR trends.

Rachel Suff

Rachel Suff, Public Policy Adviser, Employment Relations

Rachel Suff joined the CIPD as a policy adviser in 2014 to increase the CIPD’s public policy profile and engage with politicians, civil servants, policy-makers and commentators to champion better work and working lives. An important part of her role is to ensure that the views of the profession inform CIPD policy thinking on issues such as health and well-being, employee engagement and employment relations. As well as conducting research on UK employment issues, she helps guide the CIPD’s thinking in relation to European developments affecting the world of work. Rachel’s prior roles include working as a researcher for XpertHR and as a senior policy adviser at Acas.

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