* Or Father / No-mi

To mark the launch of H+K London’s Fertility Policy, in the first in a two-part series, IVF survivor and H+K Director Gina MacCarthy highlights the need to recognise that supporting employees through infertility is a fundamental part of creating a culture of inclusivity and belonging.

Let me start by breaking the taboo.

I’ve worked at H+K since 2006. In that time, I’ve spent 7 years having invasive IVF treatment, I’ve experienced two miscarriages, had 6 unsuccessful treatment cycles, drained every last drop of savings and burdened myself with significant debt in the process. This is not something I freely shared until recently.

In the past few years, as DEI has (rightly) become a workplace obsession and, as someone who actively seeks to make a positive contribution to H+K’s culture, I’ve searched myself for ways that I can use my experience to drive inclusivity. H+K’s DEI policy clearly states that “we are committed to creating an inclusive culture in which everyone feels they belong and are inspired to reach their full potential.” I thought, being a woman of mixed ethnicity, that these might be my focus areas.

Then it hit me over the head. I had been silently battling a disease for a third of my career, shrouded in self-imposed shame and stigma, impacting my career decisions along the way.

During this time, I was not myself. I did not feel I belonged in this highly competitive, fast-moving environment. I was not inspired to reach my full potential. In fact, I did everything possible to avoid progression; deftly sidestepping growth opportunities in the belief that stepping out of my comfort zone was a step too far and resolutely hoping I would quickly fall pregnant so didn’t want to risk changing roles to then ‘let people down’. I feared that judgement and career retribution would come with disclosure.

The scars of this experience have absolutely held me back from the career path I might have had. Not because of a lack of support from my workplace – I could not have wished for a more supportive line manager. And, through my experience of working at H+K through other life-changing experiences like bereavement, I knew I had the support and trust of my workplace to do my job in a way that gave me the space I needed. Yet I felt compelled to keep my experience private; it never occurred to me to consider the impact on my career, until much later.

I couldn’t have felt more alone. But the sad truth is that I was far from alone. According to Fertility Network UK, over 3.5 million people in the UK experience some kind of fertility challenge. Infertility affects 1 in 6 couples – and that’s only the data collected from heterosexual couples.

Embryo transfer day, 2018. Like many women undertaking IVF, this was taken as holiday to avoid disclosure.
A typical drugs haul for one IVF cycle, which often cost up to £2,000 a pop.

And it’s financially challenging with no clear end date in sight. At the time of my treatments, there was no NHS funding for women aged over 39 (this has now changed to include cycles for women aged 40-42 in certain cases). Just one IVF cycle in the UK can cost up to £8,000 – and that’s before you add on the cost of drugs, complimentary therapies and counselling – with no guarantee of success. Paradoxically, career progression is essential to keep the hope alive.

It’s no secret that our industry is demanding. We manage complex, business-critical work with intense schedules, international travel and challenging budgets. Client service means we are programmed to be present, available and agile. And, until more recent cultural shifts, work-life boundaries were ill-defined. With so many plates spinning, adding an additional, hefty plate (with mind-altering and physically debilitating drugs) requires unimaginable reserves of resilience. So much so that, in a recent study, 1 in 5 employees had to reduce their hours or quit their jobs whilst undertaking fertility treatment, which can often last months each cycle. Yet there is still no statutory right for time off work to undergo treatment.

Isn’t this just a women’s issue? At H+K our workforce has an almost 70-30 female to male split. But fertility is not just a female issue. Male factors account for around half of all infertility problems. And it’s critical that same-sex couples and individuals wishing to become parents are treated equally; families come in all shapes and sizes and, only this month, NHS funding for artificial insemination was finally extended to same-sex couples and single people.

Until recently infertility was, in my opinion, one of the last unspoken social taboos. But thankfully, that’s changing. As part of the ongoing evolution towards a fully inclusive workplace culture and, recognising the very many benefits of an empowered workforce, conversations like this are more easily had.

In a recent article fertility activist Becky Kearns talked about the impact of infertility on her career. “The strain became so much that I was signed off work with stress and anxiety for the first time in my career, I considered taking a career break, and eventually I agreed a sideways move out of the succession pipeline into a less demanding role, four days a week.” BBC Woman’s Hour presenter Emma Barnett highlighted the need for people to speak up. “I am not looking for sympathy or pity; I am sharing my story in the hope it will help more people understand.”

Developed in partnership with our HR Manager Karin Bostrand and Fertility Network UK, our newly launched policy offers up to 10 days’ leave for eligible employees to undertake fertility treatment, it also highlights sick and compassionate leave available in the event of a miscarriage, flexible and hybrid working options and many other company-wide resources to support anyone needing support. Part of this includes a new role for me: I’m proud to become H+K’s first ‘Fertility Buddy’ – to offer a friendly, confidential ear and shared experiences to my colleagues, at any stage of their fertility journey.

I am thankful for all the support I received in my journey and, even though my career hasn’t taken the path I planned, my experiences have led me to some unexpected and fulfilling places where I continue to discover new ways to grow – in the freedom that comes from being my true self in a workplace where I belong.

Look out for the second part of this series when H+K Managing Director and new mum Orla Moran shares her recent experiences and tips for navigating IVF at work.

Baby George's first 'Keep In Touch' day.