“Managing Your Career During Infertility Part 1: Coping in the Workplace” | myMindBodyBaby
It can be challenging to plan your career around a pregnancy and resulting maternity leave that you think will happen according to “normal” timelines. It is extra difficult to manage your career during infertility.
Infertility snakes its tentacles into every facet of your life and the workplace is no exception.
As you spend a good portion of your day at work, this can impact your mental well-being. But whereas you can cry on your run (I have), sob on your couch (been there) and sniffle in the grocery store without (too many) ill effects, most of us try to maintain a professional front in the workplace.
We asked, you answered.
We posed the question to our community: “do you need more resources to help manage your career during infertility?” A resounding chorus of YES ensued. I empathize completely. During the despairing throes of infertility I really struggled with two main areas: managing my day-to-day composure in the workplace as well as attempting to advance my career.
Part 1: Managing Your Career During Infertility
To dig into both of these areas in one article would be a lot of information – and so this is Part 1 of Managing Your Career During Infertility. In this article we are going to explore how to cope in the workplace – in Part 2 we will dig into advancing your career during this tumultuous phase of life.
While there is limited qualitative research on the impact of infertility on one’s career, in January 2019 a research article came out in the Journal of Reproduction & Infertility studying just this.
“Infertility has the potential to impact every area of a female’s life. The emotional impact infertility may have on women, in addition to the physical and time constraints involved with pursuing fertility treatments, frequently resulted in decreased occupational engagement and fulfillment of roles as spouse or friend. Those experiencing infertility need more resources and support to navigate their journey.”
Our reason for being.
And providing more resources and infertility support is our raison d’etre – literally, our sole mission. We specialize in infertility support via nutrition, exercise, and mental well-being – and this topic falls squarely into mental well-being. Your job may be purely a source of income to survive – but for many, it is also a source of challenge and accomplishment. Whatever your career represents to you, when you are struggling at work it can have a significant impact on your mental well-being. To tackle this topic we reached out to other Infertility Warriors to hear about their experiences, we spoke with experts and we researched. We want to provide you with the support you need on this journey.
How to build your toolbox.
While we all aim to thrive we know that sometimes during this journey it’s about daily survival. To understand what can help you survive your workday when life in the infertility trenches get rough, experts recommend assessing what types of coping mechanisms are best suited to you. What works for one person will not necessarily work for another. So let’s start there.
Identifying coping mechanisms that will work for you.
Science Direct provides a great overview on coping. It describes the difference between coping styles and coping strategies. Coping styles are somewhat inherent to each person – embedded in your being. Coping strategies are tools can be learned and tailored to your coping style. What style are you?
Coping styles are how you naturally react to a stressful situation.
- Task-Oriented: when faced with a stressful situation you look for ways to solve
- Emotion-Oriented: when faced with a stressful situation you have an emotional reaction
- Avoidance-Oriented: when faced with a stressful situation you look for ways to avoid it or distract yourself
Think about the last time you received upsetting information at work. What was your first response? Let’s use an example – think about how you would respond: you are at work and you get a call in the afternoon from your fertility clinic letting you know your blood work results are in and there is a risk they will have to cancel this cycle.
- Task-Oriented Response: you ask to book a meeting with the nurse or doctor to review the results in detail and determine what options are available to try to continue with treatment this cycle.
- Emotion-Oriented Response: you choke back a sob, hang up as quickly as possible and run to the nearest washroom for a good cry.
- Avoidance-Oriented Response: you hang up, go back to your desk and immediately try to distract yourself with your current project.
There is no wrong coping style. It is only important that you identify what your style is so that you can find the strategies that will help you. This is important because if you have a list of tactics you know will help you, you can create a personal toolbox. Here are a few more suggestions for the next time you are at work and receive a distressing call:
- Create a decision tree: in preparation for calls like this, make a decision tree outlining your options for each possible scenario – this way you will immediately know your next steps.
- Have a game plan: there is a lot out of your control during infertility. Come up with a game plan for the aspects that are still in your control. If you get distressing news, review your plan in your head and find comfort that you are doing everything in your power to work towards your goal.
- Build your resilience in preparation: This is a prepare-ahead-of-time type suggestion. Shannon Carr, from Lighthouse Fertility & IVF Coaching, has the following on this: “There is a lot of research about building resilience and how this helps us thrive in difficult situations. A HBR article suggests exercising mindfulness, compartmentalizing and practicing compassion and gratitude are ways to cultivate more resilience. Option B is a book by Sheryl Sandberg and a great guide about building resilience in the face of adversity.
Emotion Oriented Suggestions:
- Have a good cry: researchers have examined the theory that crying may actually be a form of self-soothing. For some, a good cry is a healthy way to relieve stress and often people feel calmer afterwards. Book yourself into a meeting room, go on a walk, make use of your office health room – find someplace to shed those tears and hopefully you can get back to work after.
- Phone a Friend: call your partner, or a friend you’ve confided in and let them comfort you.
- Find a work confidante: if there is someone at work you can confide in, speak with them. If possible, open up about your struggles when you’re feeling as calm as you can – and then if you get distressing news at work, that person might be able to provide a physical shoulder in that moment. They may also be able to cover you if you need to miss a meeting or take some time during the day for that good cry. Natalie Montgomery, a doctoral candidate at the University of Ottawa has studied the benefits of having “IVF Sisters” – someone to lean on who has been down the infertility road. One IVF patient I spoke to said she overheard a co-worker speaking about their past fertility challenges to another co-worker. Later, she approached the woman and asked if she could confide in her. That co-worker was more than happy to lend a supportive ear – and the two even developed a close bond over time.
Avoidance Oriented Suggestions:
- Work from home: if you know you are receiving big news from the clinic on a specific day and you have the option to work from home, do it. You can’t really avoid receiving the news – but you can avoid making the situation harder by receiving it at work.
- Let it go to voice mail: this one would be hard for most, but if you are about to go into a big meeting and your clinic calls – let it go to VM and listen after the meeting. One woman I spoke with said, “It took all I could muster – but I saw my clinic calling right before a big presentation and I knew if I picked up I’d be completely distracted – regardless of the news. I let it go to voicemail, I completed my presentation and then was able to check my voicemail in a side room afterwards. It wasn’t good news, but at least I felt good about how my presentation went. One part of my day that at least went well!”.
Another common issue is staying motivated at work. Managing those stressful calls is one thing, but an overall lack of motivation or feeling distracted can be difficult too. Fertility treatments require a lot of appointments – preliminary testing, daily blood work and ultrasounds, appointments to review your results, potential surgeries resulting recovery. You may feel overwhelmed, completely taxed or just drained of all extra energy. You may find you can’t participate in some of your leisure activities or hobbies that used to help you re-charge. Let’s be honest, between appointments and work there is just no time – or energy – left. And this can be disheartening. What can you try this type of situation?
Task Oriented Suggestions:
- Dig into a new work project: if you aren’t able to muster up the same motivation you used to be able to apply to your work, finding a new project may help. Said one woman I interviewed, “every day felt the same – wake up, rush to my clinic, sit at my desk, struggle to focus during the day, get home. Repeat.” She spoke with her manager about taking on a new project that she could really dig her teeth into and she saw her daily outlook improve.
- Focus on what you can control: taking charge of areas of your life that can help increase your feelings of well-being and help with overall motivation. How have you been eating? Have you been able to find safe ways to keep moving? Have you tried meditation or mindfulness programs? Circle & Bloom has some great free options available.
Emotion Oriented Suggestions:
- Find a supportive colleague: if you can’t find someone who has also struggled with infertility, you may still be able to find someone who can be supportive. Lean on this person when you’re feeling particularly down – go for a coffee, suggest a walk at lunch or stay a few minutes after a meeting for a quick pick-me-up chat. Shannon Carr reiterates, “Having a support resource in your workplace will make a huge difference when you need that timely empathetic ear, and it’s reassuring to know that you can count on them to have your back if you have to step out for an appointment.”
- Talk to your manager: if you think you can confide in your manager, disclosing what you are going through and how it is impacting you emotionally may be helpful. Daphne Bykerk, a Vice President and partner at Mandrake does have some warnings with this approach – “confiding in your manager can be tricky – business is business, and decisions may be made based on what you disclose.” If you aren’t sure you can trust your manager, she suggest finding someone in HR to speak with. If you do intend to speak with your manager, Shannon recommends: “My advice to my clients who choose to tell their employer is to be highly prepared for that meeting. Don’t expect your leader to know the intensity of the process or the flexibility that is required. Do your best to articulate exactly where you may need their support, flexibility, extra resources etc.”
Avoidance Oriented Suggestions:
- Take time off: you have a lot going on right now and you may need to step away from the areas that are depleting your energy. This isn’t always an option with work – but if you can take some vacation or even unpaid leave during a really stressful time (for example, the week of your egg retrieval) you may be able to come back to work after feeling more motivated and recharged. Shannon adds, “Depending on your job, and how open you are with your employer about your situation you may want to explore flex hours, virtual days particularly during peak times of a fertility treatment or even research the short term leave options. Get educated and use this information as a sense of control and opportunity.”
- Distract yourself: Before infertility, what types of activities did you enjoy? What do you look forward to doing on weekends? Sit down with your partner and plan an enjoyable activity. It could be something as small as going on a drive to visit your favorite hiking spot or beach, or maybe you can even squeeze in a little weekend getaway.
This can be a socially isolating road.
You may find yourself feeling isolated at work. Whereas before you felt able to easily chit chat with others in the coffee room, commiserate with co-workers over the ridiculous air conditioning levels and feel a sense of camaraderie with your peers in the board room – now you may feel withdrawn. Perhaps even bitter. Why do your colleagues get to make happy pregnancy announcements and you don’t? How dare Mary in accounting complain again that her daughter kept her up all night? You’d give anything to be awoken by a small child crying out for momma. It’s not fair that Susan can talk freely about needing to work from home because her kid is sick, and meanwhile you force yourself to come into work while silently suffering from a stomach riddled with injection bruises, an abdomen that feels like someone has inflated it with a bike pump, and tears that threaten to overflow at any moment. What can you do in these situations?
Task Oriented Suggestions:
- Start the next conversation: be the one to pick the coffee room banter. Start talking about your latest Netflix series, discuss the latest book you’re reading (they don’t need to know it’s your clinic waiting room distraction go-to), or talk about your upcoming weekend plans.
- Focus on the details: sometimes to avoid a meltdown I would completely throw myself into a nursery decorating conversation. I’d focus on colour schemes, Amazon sales or other details that I could relate to instead of dwelling on the fact that we were talking about something I so longed to decorate myself. It didn’t work all the time – but it’s an option.
- Get additional help: “Take some time understand the full suite of your employee benefit plan. In addition to medication coverage, most company’s offer Employee Assistant Programs that will cover the cost of counselling which can be immensely helpful when navigating the emotional tolls of infertility. Look into any wellness initiatives (meditation rooms, fitness centre) that you can tap into during the work day”, recommends Shannon.
Emotion Oriented Suggestions:
- Let the tears flow: we’ve offered this option up before, but sometimes releasing that emotion will allow you to find your calm and get back to your desk. Go to a quiet space, have a good sob, let your red eyes clear – and then head back to your desk.
- Sweat it off: if you are lucky enough to have fitness facilities at your office, use them. That annoyance you feel for seemingly ungrateful Mary – take it out in the gym. No gym on site? Try a brisk walk – with each step silently curse your insensitive co-workers.
Avoidance Oriented Suggestions:
- Bring your own coffee: if the coffee room is a hot spot for triggering topics – don’t go there. Bring your coffee (or TTC friendly green tea) from home, or grab your beverage of choice from the closest coffee shop.
- “I’m on a call”: You know the dorky wireless phone headsets that make you look like Madonna in the ’80s? Use them! Pretend you’re on a call the next time you need to go into a communal area ripe with complaining parents or pregnant women. No headset? Grab your cell phone and fake an important call to avoid getting sucked into the office chatter.
The workplace can be hard.
We have covered a few challenging workplace scenarios, but there are countless others. We have created a simple coping strategy tool to download that will hopefully help you navigate the next difficult situation at work:
Personal note from Lyndsey:
Our first round of IVF was hard. I hated the lack of control, the unknowns and the feeling of secrecy or sneaking around. Some of the medications weren’t working as the doctor would have liked, my doses were increased and I ended up with OHSS. In the end, our fresh transfer didn’t work and our only frozen transfer ended in miscarriage. Through it all, we kept everything mostly to ourselves. We shared our struggles with immediate family and our best friends, but that was it. No one at work had any idea what my husband and I were going through. As we prepared for our second round of IVF we evaluated what we could do to make the process a little easier on ourselves. I would classify coping style as heavily task oriented with a healthy dash of emotion. So after a good long cry, I came up with a game plan – things I could do to help me feel better prepared for this next round.
- I spoke with my manager about what was going on – while this can be risky, she was extremely supportive and I didn’t feel like I was sneaking around to get to appointments.
- I found two co-workers who had also struggled with infertility – they were my shoulders at work to cry on or my cheerleaders when I needed it.
- I booked an appointment to review the new medication I was going to take for the next round – I wanted to know what we were changing and why it would possibly result in a better outcome. This helped me feel more optimistic about our chances of success and more in control of our situation – which enabled me to feel more in control and more like my normal self at work.
- I asked to change the format of one of my medications – estrogen patches instead of vaginal pills. A small change, but it again helped me feel somewhat in control of the journey and it was a lot easier to administer during my workday – plus, my body actually responded better to them.
- My husband and I focused even more on supportive nutrition. Another measure to help feel in control – I felt like each meal I was doing something positive to support our goal. So each work lunch felt like another positive step towards our goal.
- I truly educated myself on what types of movement and exercise were safe at what points. Exercise is one of my main stress relieving tools. To cut it out completely during round one was not necessary and was detrimental to my mental health in my opinion. Next time, when I started to feel upset or stressed at work I could go for a walk or visit the gym in the office.
This was my game plan, and I felt a lot better mentally and at work during round two than I did the first time around. But everyone’s game plan is going to be different, because everyone copes with stressors differently. For me, it also helped that I knew what to expect. I do not like unknowns and the first time around everything was unknown. If you’re someone who feels better knowing what to expect, try connecting with someone who has been down this road. We have a great closed Facebook group, Infertility Support: Nutrition, Fitness & Mental Health if you don’t have anyone to connect with in your social circle, or if you would like to find more support from others who are going through what you’re going through.
Allow your struggle to reveal your strength.
It may not feel like it right now, but regardless of where this journey leads you – you will come out of it stronger. You will find patience, empathy and an appreciation for life that you didn’t have before. You might form a deeper bond with your partner. You might have experiences that can make you stronger team member at work. But to get there, you need to survive this storm. And you will. You have an entire community of warriors out there to help you. This was Part 1: Managing Your Career During Infertility – watch out for Part 2: Advancing Your Career During Infertility.