National Fertility Awareness Week: Let’s focus on line managers

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National Fertility Awareness Week starts on Monday 30 October 2023, with Friday 3 November focusing on fertility in the workplace.

If you’ve read any of my previous articles or posts you’ll see that fertility in the workplace is a topic that’s very close to me, both personally and professionally.

This year, I’m approaching the week from a slightly different angle. I’ve written and spoken about the things employers can do to make the fertility journey easier for their employees (remember, one in six people experience infertility in their lifetime, so this is a topic that has an impact on every organisation) – but rather than look at the institutional issues and things the ‘employer’ can do, I want to talk about what individual colleagues can do, in particular line managers, leaders, bosses – the people who oversee the people.

I was intrigued by a survey carried out by Fertility Matters at Work (they surveyed 150 employees who’d undergone fertility treatment); 70% said that their line manager had more of an impact on their mental health while they were going through fertility treatment than their doctor or their therapist and equal to that of their partner. Let that sink in for a moment … in a process where medicine is helping someone to create or grow their family, employees feel that their line manager affects their mental health more than their doctor.

It’s a tough gig being a line manager – alongside the day job, line managers are expected to provide pastoral care to their team members, for which they may have little or no training, be lacking in the skills, and/ or feel overwhelmed by it. That’s why I wanted to provide some tips, guidance and support for line managers as they have such an important part to play in how people feel about and in work when they are dealing with such a deeply personal and/ or challenging life event, such as, but not limited to, fertility treatment.

With that in mind, and aside from all the positive steps employers can take to support their employees and empower their line managers to have these conversations in the workplace, here are my suggestions for line managers – I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on these and any more you can think of:

  1. Be empathetic: Enlightened empathy involves understanding the underlying needs and feelings of employees so that you can go beyond their immediate tactical needs to predict what they may benefit from or value in the future. However, be careful that you…
  2. …don’t assume anything: Take your lead from the employee in front of you. And if in doubt, ask them if x, y or z would be helpful to them.
  3. Act as a buffer: Pregnancy announcements, baby showers, babies being brought into work for visits, etc. are all part of working life and shouldn’t be discouraged but be mindful of those who may need a pre-warning so that they can absent themselves if it’s triggering, or prepare for such events. This applies equally to those who are going through treatment as well as those who have decided not to undergo further treatment and/ or are childless not by choice.
  4. Be prepared to educate yourself: This applies generally (read up on the process someone is going through) as well as specifically (check what support/ policies your organisation has) so that you can have a productive conversation with someone but...
  5. …don’t put pressure on yourself to be the expert in all things: You’re not expected to be an expert but be open to learn and be curious about what you know you don’t know and find out what you don’t know you don’t know.
  6. If you’re unsure, ask: Linked to the above, if you don’t know what someone’s treatment plan looks like and what they’ll need, ask them. Similarly, if you can’t find a policy or anything internally, ask HR or whoever is responsible for people. (And if there’s nothing in place, perhaps suggest putting an approach or policy forward.)
  7. Don’t get too personal: Stick to questions you need to know the answer to, as opposed to the ones that are no concern of yours. For example (and these are things I’ve heard have been said to people), don’t ask, ‘which one of you has the issue?’ or ‘who’s going to be the genetic father?’ (if it’s a same sex male couple). Before asking the question ask yourself, ‘do I really need to know this in order to help this employee?’ If the answer is ‘no’ then don’t ask it.
  8. Seek your own support if any topic or conversation is triggering: Managers are people too with their own life experiences and challenges. Don’t be expected to shoulder someone else’s burdens without getting the support you need for you.
  9. Show your own vulnerability but don’t try to ‘solve’ the problem: Sharing your own experience – whether that’s direct or indirect experience – is a very powerful and empowering tool. However, you aren’t there to, nor can you, solve the person’s fertility issue. For example, don’t say, ‘someone I know did x and it worked.’ And while I’m on the subject, don’t say: ‘at least you can get pregnant’, ‘you already have a child so you should be happy with that’, ‘why don’t you ‘just’ adopt’, ‘you can have one of mine!’, ‘I’m sure it’ll work for you’, etc. (again, all of which I’ve heard have been said). It’s difficult and can feel awkward to have these conversations with people but as well as trying not to ‘solve’ peoples’ problems, don’t belittle them, feel like you must lighten the mood or be overly optimistic (fertility treatment doesn’t guarantee a baby but simply gives someone a chance of having one). A simple, ‘I’m sorry you’re going through that; I’m here if you want to talk or need any support at work’ is a far better response.
  10. Think practically: Have your organisation’s Employee Assistance Programme (or support line) telephone number to hand; store it in your mobile phone so that you can relay it to someone when they need it. Consider what you can do to help the person – allowing them flexibility over start and finish times, helping them manage their diary if they have meetings, arranging cover or shift swaps if they need, etc.

The impact a line manager can have on an employees life, both positively and negatively, is huge – so the support offered to those going through fertility treatment can make a real difference. 

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