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‘There is more understanding now’ – how firms are supporting staff with fertility challenges

For International Women’s Day, Vinson & Elkins Europe head of international disputes Louise Woods discusses how her firm has created a more inclusive workplace for staff facing fertility issues and baby loss.

What should firms do to support employees dealing with baby loss or fertility issues?

There’s been a recent nationwide survey conducted by the Fertility Network UK which surveyed more than 3,000 people and revealed the profound impact of fertility challenges on individuals in the workplace. Almost 9 out of 10 respondents said their productivity at work was strongly impacted by fertility challenges. Against this backdrop, it is important that firms support employees dealing with pregnancy loss and fertility issues.

One of the key things to remember in that context as an employer or a manager is that by the time an individual has reached the stage where they are seeking fertility treatment, they may have already spent several years trying to conceive. Their physical and mental wellbeing may already have been impacted.

It is important for employers to have a good understanding of how fertility treatments work and what they can involve. That base level of understanding can really help an employee through what is an incredibly difficult time in one’s life, trying to juggle very personal fertility issues alongside workplace commitments.

Another thing that is important to understand in this context is the timing. Often when these types of issues arise, it is at a time when a woman’s career is taking off. That can be a very difficult personal juggle for the individual going through fertility issues or pregnancy loss. Therefore, having knowledge and understanding of these issues is important.

It is also important to understand that there is not always going to be a positive outcome to fertility treatments. They are often not successful, and ultimately, it may not be on the first attempt or the second attempt or even the third. Education around fertility treatments is very important.

There are other things employers can do, such as offering paid leave for fertility treatments, bereavement leave for employees affected by pregnancy loss, and counselling for their partners as well, because people often forget that there is frequently also a partner grieving.

Employers should also ensure that they have a flexible working policy and that they use it to support employees going through fertility treatments. There are many appointments involved in some of these procedures and having the option to work from home and to facilitate that is an obvious way in which employers can support their employees.

Does V&E have any policies or support networks in place to help employees facing such issues?

Pregnancy loss or unsuccessful fertility treatments can be devastating, whether it happens to you or your partner. V&E is committed to giving all pregnant employees the support that they need. We allow a reasonable amount of paid time off to attend appointments or to support your partner in attending appointments.

We also have a partnership with an organisation called Maven. That’s a digital platform that provides support throughout the family planning process. There’s an app which provides information on vetted clinics and agencies, mental health support, and information for those going through IVF, egg freezing, adoption or surrogacy. Maven also provides support for prospective parents and new parents and specialized care for menopause, which is an important women’s health issue that deserves more airtime and understanding.

Please can you share your own experiences with these issues and how you navigated them alongside your career?

I’ve been very lucky in my fertility journey. I have two healthy children, ages four and eight, but I did experience two early pregnancy losses when trying to conceive. For one of those, I was actually in the workplace when it happened. Obviously, it was very difficult both times because pregnancy loss of any kind takes an emotional and a physical toll on you, and an emotional toll on your partner as well, which I think is often forgotten.

I’m very lucky, I found support in my colleagues and had confidence in the firm’s attitude. That is very much a lived experience for me, not just in terms of my own pregnancy losses, but when anyone in our team here in London suffers a bereavement or has a family member that is ill or going through treatment, ours is the kind of workplace where there is no question that an employee can have some time off. We are very good at supporting each other through those times. My experience, although obviously very upsetting, was overall a positive one regarding my experience at work.

Do you think there is a stigma attached to talking about baby loss or fertility struggles and how does that apply to the legal profession?

The position is improving. It’s a deeply personal experience at a time of great vulnerability. I think, understandably, women don’t feel comfortable sharing their journey with colleagues and their employer. It’s important to understand those struggles will often have been experienced before a person has told their employer they are trying to conceive, and that can affect how much communication there is. I hadn’t told my employer that I was pregnant at the time when I had my pregnancy loss and I think that is probably quite common. So, there is a stigma attached to talking about it, but the position is improving. There is more understanding than there was 10–15 years ago.

One of the reasons for that is people are more comfortable now speaking up and talking about their own experiences. One of the things I will now do is talk to colleagues about fertility because I want them to feel empowered to know they can share their experiences with me and that they will have my support if that would be helpful.

Do you think health issues traditionally considered to be ‘women’s health issues’, such as baby loss or menopause, have an impact on women’s career progression?

I haven’t seen any examples of it, but it’s probably going to be the case that other people will say that is their lived experience. Like mental health, there is more of a dialogue now, and things are improving. My lived experience was a positive one, and I have never felt that my own career progression was hampered in any way.