How to talk about infertility with your boss and not make it uncomfortable

For many, the desire to start a family is primal — a period in life they’ve looked forward to for decades. That’s why infertility can be such a daunting, disheartening and difficult experience — after all, few know if they will have trouble procreating until they try.

Even when you attempt to eliminate any distractions from your work and deliverables, IVF treatments can be invasive and continuous negative pregnancy tests can significantly change your attitude and your performance. That’s why it’s essential to have an open, candid — and yes, vulnerable — heart-to-heart with your manager if you’re deep in the process of trying to conceive. In honor of National Infertility Awareness Month, a psychologist offers her best advice on how to navigate this conversation effectively in the workplace:

How infertility impacts women

While some little girls play with baby dolls from the time they’re old enough to push around a toy stroller, others are sparked with the desire to have a child until they’ve met a lifelong partner. Others might not require a spouse and may begin a family on their own. Whatever the decision-making moment, being diagnosed as infertile is mentally and emotionally draining. Psychologist Yvonne Thomas, Ph.D. explains women specifically may suffer from diminished self-confidence and sense of worth, translating into a more reserved or defeated nature in the office. “A woman may feel less competent and valuable at work which can actually make the woman’s job performance suffer due to her being more insecure, less able to concentrate, being distracted, not sleeping well, and/or experiencing emotions such as irritability, anxiety, depression, frustration, grief, and/or helplessness,” she explains.

In addition to the whirlwind of emotions, Dr. Thomas adds many women undergo excessive testing and procedures as they work to improve their chances of getting pregnant. This abundance of doctor appointments — and new levels of hormone — can pull their attention away from a client meeting and toward the long-awaited arrival of blood results. This creates an obvious stress of leaving the office several times a week — causing them to be left out of calls, emails, and progress — sparking a whole new slew of feelings. “Since women must take time away from work attempting to try different methods to get pregnant, this can cause symptoms including stress, feeling overwhelmed, and disruption as they miss meetings, deadlines and find themselves getting behind with work,” she explains.

How infertility impacts men

While often times, women bare the brunt of the experience, it’s not a female-only affair, since many men face infertility issues, too. Though biology dictates a man can’t carry a child, some men may carry the burden of infertility, especially if they’re the main cause. Dr. Thomas says many males will feel inadequate and ineffectual, which can interfere with their job performance. Even if the root of a couple’s inability to get pregnant stems from the female, many men will feel great empathy for their partner, and also work to overcome their own fears around not having the family they imagined. Most men also want to be part of the doctor appointments and serve as a supportive force, helping their wife or girlfriend know they aren’t alone since procreation is a two-way street.

“Men may have a variety of symptoms which can negatively affect them in the workplace such as problems with sleep, mood, focus, motivation, and loss of time due to fertility-related reasons,” she adds.

How to talk to your manager

While every TTC case is different, most specialists will create a plan to give couples or singles the best odds of having a baby. This might include IVF treatments, surrogate options, and other routes. Whatever the course of action though, it’s likely you and your partner will be spending countless hours visiting doctors. This fact alone is reason enough to give your manager a head’s up. Request a meeting in private where you let your boss know you’d like to speak about a confidential, personal matter. If for any reason you don’t feel you can trust him or her, seek the solace of human resources to deliver the news. Here are some topics to touch on:

Express your commitment

There’s no way around it: In the United States, fertility treatments are pricey, and few employers help with the cost. For many, this means a paycheck is even more important to ensure, making employment that much more significant. When you begin the conversation, Dr. Thomas urges professionals to reiterate your dedication to your gig, no matter what personal issues you may be facing. Here, it’s okay to be honest and request a bit of leeway and patience from the higher-ups. “Explain to your boss that you are as committed to your job as much as ever, but that you are going through a very difficult time with fertility issues and that it is causing some temporary issues with you operating at your full capacity,” she says.

Take responsibility

Fair warning: any type of medical issue — especially one that’s tied directly to your sense of self, your future and your heartstrings — may result in some intense introspective. While normal, accepting hard truths about your body and its capabilities can be frustrating and at times, scary. However, the more you take responsibility for your situation and claim ownership, the better you will feel about moving forward — both socially and professionally.

Your manager needs to understand the steps you’re taking, why you’re taking them, and most importantly, why those steps matter to you and your happiness. This may mean strategizing ways to work and a varied solution to your day-to-day deliverables.

“Articulate you’re trying to find better ways to work more effectively during this stressful phase such as exercising enough to help de-escalate the upsetting feelings, sharpen your concentration, and increase your energy,” Dr. Thomas says. “You may consider going to therapy to help more effectively deal with the fertility struggles and symptoms or incorporating ways to relax and de-stress into your life such as meditation or yoga, and leaning on the emotional support of family and friends.”

The more your manager knows what you’re doing outside of office hours, the more likely they will be forgiving and understanding of your fertility journey.

Be honest about your performance

Depending on the relationship you have with your boss and how long you’ve been at a company, he or she may be more empathetic toward your situation. If you’re comfortable and feel as if your job won’t be in jeopardy, Dr. Thomas says it’s okay to ask for a temporary shift in your responsibilities.

“If you are getting behind with work, missing meetings and/or deadlines, ask your boss if he or she can temporarily delegate some of your workload to others in the office, without disclosing to them why this is being done until you are more able to reclaim your full workload again,” she suggests. “By asking your boss to do this, you are acknowledging that you are not currently performing at your usual capacity at work, but that you don’t want to disrupt or adversely affect the company because of your situation.”