Work conditions and job-related demands can also influence people’s experiences of fertility treatment. Currently in Australia, undergoing fertility treatment is not a leave entitlement and people must use other forms of leave to take time off work. However, policy interest in reproductive leave (leave for reproductive health conditions and illness) is growing, with selected individual employers choosing to offer such entitlements.
Impact of infertility or fertility treatment on work
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Megan, a data analyst, describes the physical and emotional impacts of going through IVF while working.
So, in the second half of your cycle, you’re quite often on a lot of progesterone; and for me, that makes me very, very tired. So, particularly mid-afternoon on a work day, 2-3pm, I usually have to take a dose of progesterone around lunchtime, and that seems to kick in mid-afternoon. So it neatly coincides with that 3pm slump. So, that can be hard mid-afternoon, if you’ve got an important meeting, or something that really needs to be done; that can be hard. And also because often you’re… or at least I am trying not to drink a lot of coffee or caffeine during that second half of the cycle, or during the cycle at all, and so you don’t feel like you can have a pick-me-up to help you through the afternoon. So that can be a bit challenging.
But again, I’ve tried to always – particularly around the embryo transfer – take a day off to rest, which I think helps from a mental perspective; but yes, having the flexibility to work from home has been really good in my current job, because it’s meant that I can sometimes… if I don’t have any meetings, or don’t need to be in the office, I am able to work from home. That said, I think if you were a nurse, or a teacher, or in any role where you can’t… you don’t have that luxury of working flexibly, or working in your own time, it would be really, really challenging. So I have a lot of admiration for anyone who is ploughing through that, in those situations.
It’s not just the flexibility to leave the office and come back, or to have to have an afternoon off that’s tricky; it’s being able to concentrate on your work while you’re going through this all from an emotional perspective, which can be really hard when there’s a lot going through your head.
Marika explains how the experience of infertility and fertility treatment altered her career path.
Well, that’s had a big impact. I think it’s definitely changed the course of where I went career-wise. I ended up now, as you know, as a health sociologist. That wasn’t where I was sitting before. I used to work in market research. So I worked in research for a long time, but that was more in a commercial sense of research. So, very different and I think, I mean, I can’t, I wasn’t consciously pursuing this. It was just, I think a natural progression from having my own experiences, being inquisitive to try and understand those experiences and other people’s experiences and improve those experiences.
I found that very hard to navigate, the balancing work and constantly leaving to go to appointments. And when you’re doing your cycles and you don’t want to tell people, you don’t want them asking and then when the nurses will call you and you’ll be at work, and you get the call and you might want to just burst into tears and you can’t. So that’s really hard. And I’ve worked in different places with different managers who were flexible, and you can tell them what’s going on and others who don’t want to know anything except work and that puts a lot of pressure on trying to go to appointments and keep things private. So I think that was also a big part of having a complete career change.
So working in market research is very long hours and very stressful, you might be managing 13 projects and everything is time allocated and everything’s so tight, turnarounds and deadlines. So I couldn’t do that type of work anymore. It’s just, I just could not do it. So partly, so then there was two things, that doing the IVF that didn’t work because I needed greater flexibility and I think just where I was at in life made me re-evaluate the type of work I wanted to be doing.
So those two things came together and I moved into the community sector and started working for a not-for-profit and then started to go back to uni, and studied psychology, then it took me on this whole new work career path into, still doing research, but in very different area.
Because I just needed flexibility. I needed to work with people who came from a very different perspective around things. And so then I found myself working in spaces where I was supported and I felt comfortable. People I worked with were probably a big part of that support as well in a way I didn’t realise at the time. And then I negotiated different hours at different times of reducing down and then going back up.
So I really feel for people who are working in places that aren’t flexible and that’s probably why I stayed in the university sector now as well. It works for me on a practical level as well as my interest level and motivation of the work I’m wanting to do. So that all came together as a positive out of those years. But it’s also that disclosure, there’s other chronic conditions or personal things you won’t have to disclose. I don’t know how I could have done IVF without disclosing it in the workplace. It would have created such a pressure to going to appointments.
Belle works in communications. As she did not disclose to her employer that she was undergoing fertility treatment, having a supportive friend at work was very important.
Interviewer: Were you open with other people or did you keep it quiet?
Belle: All my close friends and family, my network knew, I’m a sharer. Most people know. But work, I just didn’t want work, I think, jumping to conclusions around my future employment, not knowing if it was going to be successful. And also, an element of, ‘Are they going to think you can’t work from home?’ or, ‘It’s not like there’s anything really wrong with you. You’re not sick. You’re choosing to go down this path. So why should you get a day, a sick day?’ Do you know what I mean? It was probably more in my head than theirs, but that’s just how I felt.
One of my best friends at work knew what was going on. So that helped just to have somebody to cover for me, if I felt like I needed to go for a walk to get some fresh air because I was upset if we’d got a negative result or if I was working from home one day because I didn’t feel up to coming into work because some days you were just exhausted with it all. So having her as somebody to lean on close to me at work every day was amazing.
Impact of work on infertility and fertility treatment
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Max and their wife have twins and are thinking about having a third child. Although Max has been willing to carry a baby, factors related to their job and health have impacted on their ability to do so.
So my partner and I were in a position where I guess legally, socially, medically, personally, financially et cetera that we could consider having a child. And so we started looking at what our options were and what that meant for us as a family and then it was quite interesting because, obviously growing up always as – I knew that I was queer and I was quite different at quite a young age so I didn’t have the narrative of, ‘I’m going to be a mum’, quotation marks. That wasn’t part of my story. But then after a while when we started looking into the legal process and the medical process and things – I remember saying to my wife one day, I was like, “Oh hey, maybe I should go first,” and she looked at me and was quite amazed and [laughter] probably a little bit in shock and didn’t expect that that would be something that I would say.
But, yes, I was like, ‘Hey, maybe children and uteruses and eggs and sperm and carrying children is not necessarily something that is innately gendered. Maybe this is something that I could do because I have these particular parts’. I don’t really see my body as female necessarily but I do see that I’ve got some particular physical characteristics that can support me to have a child.
So she was quite amazed and didn’t expect that.
So I would have been I think 36. We put our initial plans on hold where my partner was going to try first. We went to one of the big clinics and I started the process of I guess IUI and going through the process of looking for an anonymous donor.
Then what happened is that I ended up going for a new job and I got a job that I was like, ‘This is an amazing career step,’ so then I said, ‘Well actually even though I started first’ – because I was eight years older than my partner and it made more sense for me to go first – I was like, ‘I need to hand the baton over.’ So we’d already paid for all this sperm twice with me and then I went, ‘Okay now your turn,’ and then we had to go through the process again around another donor for my partner to start IUI.
So now we’re at a point where my partner has successfully got embryos, conceived. We’ve got twins and then I’ve got embryos in the freezer with the same donor.
So the jury was always out on whether we would have a full basketball team or three and I think it’s probably still at that point. I think we’ll probably still have a third child. We’re actually in the middle of conversations. We started having those conversations with our two now of, ‘Do you want a little sibling? Do you think it would be nice to have a baby?’
But we haven’t really figured out logistically who would carry and who would not carry. Probably at this point my chronic health autoimmune stuff has been quite hard this year so the likelihood of me being able to physically work and carry a child is a little bit scary.
Thanks to having an autonomous role and working in a ‘progressive’ organization, Ruby, a lawyer, was able to balance work with IVF.
It [fertility treatment] didn’t impact on work really except for the egg collection because you need to have a day off afterwards because you can’t drive after having the anaesthetic and you can’t do other things and the kind of work I’m in, I couldn’t have worked while the anaesthetic was still in my system. I think I had to have time off work to attend appointments and some of them were quite long appointments.
I had told somebody what was going on and they were fine. It’s mostly men that I work with. But it’s a fairly progressive place to work with the work I do. They’re understanding.
I’ve always been fairly autonomous at work. I don’t really need permission to do a lot of things. If I’d been in a different role or more junior, I probably would have had some more difficulty.
A teacher, Hannah found ‘juggling’ an inflexible job with appointments at IVF clinics with limited hours very challenging. However, when she took a break from the workforce, she found she had too much time to think about IVF.
Hannah: And the other thing is, IVF clinics often don’t realise that you can’t answer the phone, no matter what – at all times, no matter what job you’re in, to have a private conversation in a workplace, about this medication, that medication, what the test results are, so they just keep telling me, “Oh, you didn’t answer your phone.” I’m like, “I’m a teacher, I cannot answer my phone, there’s children around me, and staff members, and parents, 24/7. Of course, I can’t answer my phone.” Then, when I phone them back, it’s the answering machine, or it’s a different nurse, on a different day, and they don’t know what’s going on. There’s too many different nurses overseeing your particular situation, and then it’s a different nurse who does the ultrasound, and all that sort of thing. It makes it difficult, as well, if these IVF doctors are not available in the times you’re available.
So, as you probably know, some clinics aren’t open on a Wednesday or something, and they close at 3pm, four days a week, and are only open four days a week, so that just doesn’t work for the majority of people trying to get to work, and then back, and leave work – and you’ve got to work, to pay for these expensive procedures.
Interviewer: It’s interesting. Your job is particularly inflexible…
Hannah: If the workplace is supportive, then letting you go early and leave, then that helps, definitely, but obviously, being a teacher, you’ve got all these parents who are expecting you to be there every day of the week, and aren’t impressed if you’re late, or not answering emails, or – it’s a juggling act, to juggle all of those things.
I tried not working, and focusing on it – so, for some women, I think that’s another point that might be going through their mind, if you are in the situation where you can afford to not work for a while, or maybe they can’t afford – they have to go to work, but they’re prepared to financially jump out there on a limb, and they feel guilty about trying to juggle work, or they might think it’s not working because they’re stressed at work, so therefore they try the option of not working, to focus on the fertility side of things, that could work, has worked for some people I know, but I’ve tried both.
After a year of not working, and then I think about it too much, or sort of you’re doomed if you do, you’re doomed if you don’t. So then, I tried working part-time, and I had a very understanding boss overseas, who would let me go to appointments, and turn up late, and have these days, those days off.
So, basically, there’s no answer, whether working and keeping your mind off it, and juggling everything, is the best solution, or whether not working is the best solution, and focusing on it, because then you might have too much time to sit around and think about it – you’re not doing enough to keep your mind active. So, it can go either way.
Reproductive Health and Wellbeing Leave – Health and Community Services Union, Victoria
Fertility treatment and employment issues – Fertility Network UK (UK-based site but contains general information)