Infertility can leave people feeling angry, ashamed and embarrassed.
When something is so intimate and personal — and for many, painful — it can be hard to tell even close family members and friends. Infertility can also interfere with your day-to-day at work, but experts say, it’s important for employers to know what you’re going through.
“ takes people into the bedroom, and opening up even to your closest network is very difficult,” says Carolynn Dubé, executive director of Fertility Matters.
Dubé says a lot of people in the organization’s support group talk about how difficult it is to tell people in their lives about their struggles to have a baby. And when it comes to telling a manager or co-worker, it can be even harder.
“It’s very situational,” she adds, adding that the difficulty of the conversation is also reflective of how fertile men and women talk about pregnancies — often, they don’t until they are pregnant.
“This is something fertile people keep quiet until they have a positive pregnancy test. It really puts people who have fertility challenges in a tough spot.”
Monday was also the launch of Canadian Infertility Awareness Week, and Dubé says this year’s goal is to remind Canadians that one in six couples will experience some difficulties starting a family. “We use the week to normalize and celebrate the people who make up that community.”
She says part of this week’s awareness is to make these conversations about difficulties conceiving easier with friends, family or co-workers. A lot of the shame or blame, she adds, comes from this idea that having children is supposed to be a natural occurrence.
“It can be embarrassing because you feel something is wrong.”
Bringing it up at work
Infertility treatments can include multiple doctors appointments or days where it can be unbearable to sit at a desk, she says. And when this happens at work, people will start to notice your behaviour. Dubé says whether you contemplate telling your co-workers depends on the type of support you think you will receive.
“It’s how much support you feel like you have and the trust level someone won’t run and tell your boss. You don’t want your job to be compromised.”
She suggests if you are uncomfortable with your manager, start with the HR department. “Tell them about your situation or that you have a medical condition and you will need some flexibility and may be absent. Ask how to navigate that.”
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Fertility support site Shared Journey adds if you are open to talking to your employer about infertility in particular, go in with a game plan. Know how many days you’re going to need off, whether you can work in the office and when you feel emotionally ready to head back to work.
The site adds it is important for employees to know about any ongoing medical issue so they can reorganize your schedule and theirs.
Career expert Fiona Bryan agrees, and adds that when the communication is clear, compassion and empathy is often the result.
“Be professional. They cannot fire you,” she tells Global News. “This conversation in bigger companies is easier. Smaller ones may be harder to get full support. … It can be a stressful time for both sides.”
She says while each business has its own policies around taking time off or flexibility around starting later or working from home, most will be able to offer sick days, personal days, temporary leaves or vacation days.
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“HR has much more legal responsibility to keep things private, … but be prepared,” she says, adding that you need to go in with a plan on how much you need to adjust your schedule and how the rest of your team can support you.
If you are having difficulty figuring out what to say, career coaches can even provide scripts or the right wording to use. “When you hide things, it can get real messy and gossip can be rampant. … Communication with your boss is key.”
Continuing to work
Dubé says that since we spend so much of our time at work and with our co-workers, people easily pick up body language or start noticing when people are late or absent. And while being around people who don’t know about your fertility struggles isn’t the best way to manage it, she says that for a lot of people, work becomes an escape.
“Some patients feel distracted at work and this is the best place for them,” she continues. “They are not at home twiddling their thumbs.”
And if you do have a good relationship with co-workers with similar experiences, it may end up being a positive space for your mental health.
Infertility can cause anxiety, depression and other mental health issues, she adds. It’s important to speak with a healthcare professional during treatments, she says. She also suggests joining a support group or a more anonymous community on social media.
“With social media, we’re seeing more and more people opening up. … Instagram is huge for the infertility community,” she says. “You can hide behind a hashtag.”
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