If you add up the hours involved, from attending appointments for blood tests and ultrasounds to managing multiple medications, IVF treatment is like having a part-time job. It makes balancing your treatment and your actual livelihood tricky, and that’s even before you throw in curveballs like hormonal surges and unpredictable procedures. So how do you go about juggling work and IVF?
1. Figure out how much time you’ll need
“The first thing to do is to look realistically at your situation,” says Stacy Thomas, a clinical psychologist in Toronto who specializes in women’s reproductive health issues. That means finding out exactly what your individual treatment plan involves, from how many early-morning clinic visits you’ll have to how much time you’ll need off work after egg retrieval and embryo transfer. Ask your care team for recommendations that are specific to you—you might need to take more time off or ask for modified duties if you have a very physical job. Another factor to weigh in on is how you deal with physical and emotional stress. For instance, some women find it helpful to take some time off to grieve in case they don’t become pregnant.
“Even before someone’s cycle begins, we go over how much time she’ll need, from the worst case scenario to the best, because it really depends on the person’s treatment and how she reacts to the medication,” says Young Kim, a social worker with the Women’s Care Program at Victoria Hospital in London, Ont. It varies from person to person: Some people bounce back right away, while others take more time to recover.
Since there’s no way of knowing how your body will respond to fertility drugs before starting your first IVF cycle, consider taking seven to 10 days off for egg retrieval if you have the luxury. “I know people who have taken an extended leave so they can go through their full cycle, but not everybody has that option,” says Taunya Johnston, a mother of one from Cambridge, Ont., who has gone through several rounds of fertility treatments, including IVF. If you find yourself craving distraction, she adds, “You can always go back to work early.” Other women choose to take vacation time between egg retrieval and transfer because they would prefer to keep the process private or because their work schedule is inflexible.
2. Develop a plan before talking to your boss
Before you even broach the topic of time off with your boss, it can be helpful to sit down and come up with some concrete ideas about how you might make up for lost time if early-morning appointments run over and you’re late for work. Can you stay later? Offer to do certain tasks at home? Get a co-worker to cover for you? If you have a lengthy commute between the clinic and work, you might want to consider a creative approach. “I know one woman who would go to the clinic, then go to a café and work remotely from there and drive back to the city after rush hour,” says Nikki Bergen, a Pilates instructor from Toronto who is currently undergoing fertility treatments. Having a workable plan can help you feel calmer and more confident when you talk to your boss.
3. Decide how much you want to disclose
While more women and men are choosing to open up about fertility treatment in the workplace, many still prefer to keep it private, and that’s OK. “You don’t have a legal responsibility to inform your employer unless you need medical time off,” notes Susan Scott, who is also a social worker at Victoria Hospital in London, Ont. “You’re entitled to take time off work, whether your employer is supportive or not, and it shouldn’t impact the security of your job,” stresses Kim.
Clinics will often provide a letter stating that a medically necessary leave of absence is required without providing specifics. Scott and Kim also help talk women through issues, such as the type of relationship they have with their employers and how family-friendly their workplace is, while they weigh the decision and provide some pointers about how to start the discussion.
4. Sketch out what to say
Thomas offers the following script as an example: “I’ll be having a number of appointments for medical reasons over the next few weeks and I’m going to do my best to be on time, but there is a possibility that I might be late sometimes. I want to make sure you know that so you can schedule accordingly.”
If you’d rather not share any details, be sure to let your employer know that the health issue you’re dealing with is serious but not life-threatening. You may also seek suggestions from others who’ve been in your shoes—perhaps via online forums or social media—about how they handled the situation. On one forum, a woman shared her creative approach to keeping things private. She told her supervisor the partial truth: She said she was starting a new medication and would require close monitoring and, potentially, time off to deal with side effects while she adjusted to it.
5. Don’t depend on the approval of others
When Johnston was going through her first IVF cycle, she opted for the discreet route because, as a contract worker, she was concerned about job security. However, she found it emotionally draining to be so guarded, so before she began undergoing IVF after starting a permanent position, she let her employer know. While the reception wasn’t as warm as Johnston had hoped for, she doesn’t regret her decision. “Some people aren’t going to understand, and that’s OK,” she says. Bergen, on the other hand, has gone the route of “being an open book” from day one, she says, telling clients why she’s not available for early-morning training sessions. “Letting people in on something that’s so personal makes you feel vulnerable,” she admits, but she has been amazed at the response.
Scott says that the latter scenario is more common than you might think, given that one in six couples is affected by infertility. “If patients feel safe talking about what they’re going through, sometimes they get more support,” she notes. Sometimes, she adds, an initial lack of support stems from simply not understanding the kinds of side effects that fertility treatment can cause and the medical risks involved with egg retrieval, in which case educational material from your clinic may help.
6. Put your physical comfort first
In addition to sapping your energy, fertility treatments put your body through major changes. You need to put your needs first. “One of the cruel aspects of going through IVF is that the side effects of the medications can mimic pregnancy symptoms,” says Scott. She talks to patients about how to cope with both physical symptoms and emotional stress. “Taking extra care to make yourself comfortable at work is so important,” she says.
To deal with the physical discomfort, invest in some flattering but forgiving workwear, such as flowing tunics, wrap dresses and comfy flats, and stow away those pencil skirts, tight-waisted pants and heels at the back of the closet for now. Small, frequent meals and snacks can help relieve nausea, so bring comfort food for lunch and stash away nibbles, such as crackers and nuts, in your purse or desk drawer. Sipping tart, fizzy fluids can also be soothing, so try filling your insulated mug with carbonated water and a slice of lemon. “This is a time you really need to be kind to yourself,” says Johnston.
7. Pull back on extra commitments
Before volunteering for that exciting but super-stressful new project or getting talked into hosting your in-laws’ anniversary bash, focus on what’s manageable and start scaling back both at work and at home. “This is not a time to load up on things that are optional,” says Thomas.
“I found it really important to err on the side of caution,” says Johnston, “like giving myself extra time in the morning so I wouldn’t have to race around all stressed out. If I was at the clinic at 7 a.m., are plans at 5 p.m. a good idea?”
8. Schedule self-care
Make regular time for activities that dial down your stress levels, whether it’s journaling, cooking, baking, going for walks or doing light exercise, such as tai chi and yoga. Deep breathing and mindfulness classes or apps can offer similar benefits, so find out what works best for you. “I found the escape of reading a good book very beneficial,” says Johnston, adding that it temporarily pushed worry and what-ifs out of her mind. She and her husband also made a point of doing something celebratory to mark the occasion, such as going out for lunch after procedures. “When you’re stressed, those things often fall by the wayside, but this is the time you really need them,” emphasizes Thomas.
9. Enlist an empathetic ear
Some women find it helpful to talk about what they’re going through, not only with their partners but also with a psychologist or social worker or, in particular, fellow travellers on the fertility-treatment journey. “My number one piece of advice would be to find someone to be your buddy,” suggests Bergen. “You can be there for her, and she can be there for you. You can find people online at #TTC or #IVF. It’s the absolute best example of social media done right, when you have this online community of people who are sending you text messages on the days of certain procedures, saying they’re thinking of you.”
Whether it’s pouring out your heart to other women going through IVF or taking extra time off to prevent exhaustion, you’ll do a better job at work if you do whatever you need to do to stay as healthy and centred as you can. “After all, the only person who can get you through it,” says Johnston, “is you.”