Ambassador recommends: Emma Cooke talks fertility treatment and work

Heart of the City | 22 August 2023 | News
Ambassador recommends: Emma Cooke talks fertility treatment and work

Every month we like to share a recommendation from one of our ambassadors: something that inspires them in their responsible business work. This month we spoke to Emma Cooke, Director of Responsible Business at Hebert Smith Freehills, who’s talking about fertility treatment.

“The NHS estimates that around one in seven couples may have difficulty conceiving, and according to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, around 60,000 people use fertility services each year in the UK.

I naively never thought it would be me! This isn’t a personal blog about our rollercoaster journey, which ultimately had a happy ending, but how fertility should be a topic in the workplace. Research conducted by Zurich revealed that more than half of women (58 per cent) who undergo IVF treatment don’t feel able to tell their employer. That could be for a variety of reasons – for me it was the fear of failure and the feeling that people would be watching me to see if it had been successful. For others it could be a concern around career progression, discrimination or simply not wanting to tell people about the pain you’re going through.

Fertility treatment is emotionally, physically and often financially draining. A rollercoaster of hope, anxiety and disappointment. It involves a large number of appointments, some at incredibly short notice, as it all depends on your hormone levels and other test results. So many phone calls about results, questions or concerns you have that come up, news from the embryologist about how your embryos are developing. Not to forget the procedure to collect the eggs and then embryo transfer appointments. There are side effects from the countless hormones, injections that need to be take at certain times of the day and some that need to be kept refrigerated.

All this makes it difficult to plan anything into your working week and give notice as you might normally do. Flexibility is key and if you don’t have the type of role where that’s possible, it could cause even more stress.

Nickie Aiken, MP for the Cities of London and Westminster launched the Fertility Workplace Pledge in November 2022 and has already gained the support of several large UK employers, such as Metro Bank, NatWest, the Co-op and Channel 4.

Employers that sign the pledge commit to taking four steps:

  1. Accessible information: Having an accessible workplace fertility policy to create an open culture free from stigma; to make sure employees feel comfortable in the workplace; and to prevent the best talent from leaving.
  2. Awareness in the workplace: Establishing the role of Fertility Ambassador to open conversations internally and make people aware of available support.
  3. Staff training: Making sure line managers understand the realities of treatment for employees including the physical, mental, and financial impact — and how they can support someone going through it.
  4. Flexible working: Giving the right for employees to request flexible working, including reasonable working adjustments, so they can attend appointments.

Nickie Aiken is also behind a Private Member’s Bill, the Fertility Treatment (Employment Rights) Bill. If passed, this would create a legal requirement for employers to offer employees paid time off work for fertility treatment appointments.

While we wait to see how the Bill progresses, the response to The Fertility Workplace Pledge demonstrates that there’s growing interest by employers to support employees going through fertility treatment. Employers should be mindful of developments in this area and I highly encourage you to consider what you can do.

Some useful areas for information include:

Infertility is hard. It’s time to support our people.”

Emma Cooke is Director of Responsible Business at global law firm Herbert Smith Freehills. She has over 15 years’ experience delivering Environmental Social and Governance performance as in-house practitioner and a brief stint as a consultant. Emma has recently returned from maternity leave since having her little boy in May 2022 through ICSI fertility treatment.

Get monthly updates