The death or serious illness of a colleague can come as a big shock to the people they work with. Despite this, most companies ignore the impact such events have on co-workers.
The main reason for this corporate coldness is that workplace relationships are assumed to be secondary to those outside. What it fails to appreciate, however, is that co-workers often genuinely care about each other but feel hidebound by office decorum not to express their emotions. The expectation is “business as usual” even though people are feeling upset or bereaved.
While death and illness are the more obvious topics that get pushed to one side in the office, there is another that gets buried even deeper: human fertility. Men rarely mention it and women come up with all sorts of excuses to explain their absence due to an early miscarriage or to cover up the fact they’re on IVF.
One in six couples struggle with fertility and, when things go wrong, the fallout can be devastating, yet both parties have little choice but to fake a semblance of normality at work, as Lisa Finnegan discovered when she had successive miscarriages following unsuccessful IVF. "I felt like a failure and I didn't know how to tell my family and friends, never mind my colleagues," she says. "I kept trying to work as normal, but the pressure was intense because you just feel emotionally, physically and indeed financially bereft."
Finnegan is a HR manager and has always urged people to talk to their boss if they have a personal issue affecting their work. But when it came to doing so herself, she hesitated because she was so unsure of the reaction.
“It was an eye-opening experience for me as a HR manager and gave me an insight into how people can bottle up things from their personal life and bring them into work with them, unspoken but present in everything they do,” she says.
Following her third miscarriage, Finnegan decided to talk to her manager. “I knew my performance at work was suffering and I wanted him to know there was a reason why,” she says. “I flew to the UK to see him, and he was super uncomfortable with the conversation. I said my piece as quickly as possible, left his office and flew home feeling dreadful.”
Finnegan subsequently moved to LinkedIn, where she is now head of HR for Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America. Two years ago, having decided to try for a baby again, she broached the subject with her new manager but with a completely different outcome.
“It was a compassionate conversation with someone who ‘got’ what was going on for me and understood that I might need to miss a meeting because of an important medical appointment or that I didn’t want to travel because I was injecting myself for IVF. Believe me, it’s hard enough doing this without being miserable in a hotel room at the same time,” she says.
“It was around this time that I felt people shouldn’t have to suffer in silence. It’s never going to be an easy conversation to have but I felt we should make it an ‘Okay’ conversation to have,” Finnegan adds. “This is what we’re trying to do at LinkedIn. We’re educating managers around having these conversations and alerting them to signs among their teams that might indicate something is wrong.
“We are contributing towards IVF treatment for employees and not just providing financial support. We have an employee assistance programme that’s available 24-7.
“I believe we need to be able to talk about these difficult issues because no one, ever, anywhere, should have a miscarriage and have to struggle into work after a day ‘off sick’. This is an event of massive physical and emotional significance and far more common than many people realise. Managers need to be trained how to respond and the situation needs to be treated with the greatest sensitivity and generosity.”
Finnegan points out that taboos around mentioning fertility at work may well be the legacy of a system that assumed a woman’s career was over when she became pregnant. That, of course, has changed dramatically and the number of companies offering IVF as an employee benefit is continuing to grow.
In the US where such things are minutely tracked, the Fertility IQ Family Builder Workplace Index for 2017-2018 showed tech companies leading the charge, with organisations such as LinkedIn, Facebook, Google, Pinterest, Spotify and Salesforce all offering good cover. The index found the vast majority of women receive the benefit from their employer, not their partner’s employer, and employees who had their treatment covered were more likely to stay with the company and to work harder.
The index also found that the majority of women (88 per cent) whose treatment was paid for by their employer returned to work after the birth.
“To break through the barriers built over many generations, support for would-be parents cannot be unspoken, and if it is to be heard by those who need to hear it, then it must be visible and it must be loud,” Finnegan says. It’s also important to remember that just because someone is trying for a baby, it doesn’t mean they are any less committed to their job or that they shouldn’t still be considered for promotion and other opportunities.”