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Puja Malhotra, photographed at her 2021 baby shower, says she found the process of fertility treatments more manageable while working from home.Handout

Puja Malhotra wanted to be a mother and used science to help make it a reality. Like thousands of Canadians, she underwent fertility treatments and says it was so much easier to do while working from home during the pandemic.

Ms. Malhotra had the unique perspective of doing a lot of the upfront testing and fertility appointments in 2019 (pre-pandemic) and then starting the actual treatments in May of 2020 amid work-from-home orders. She says this experience allowed her to see just how beneficial the latter scenario really was.

“It’s so much more than just the appointments,” recalls Ms. Malhotra. “The injections have to be done at a certain time, within half an hour, and then the pills and some things are refrigerated and, maybe most importantly, it’s based on your cycle, it’s not based on when you’re available.”

The unpredictability of cycles, the stress of trying to meet appointments while not disclosing your private life at work, surreptitiously giving yourself injections in the work bathroom, hiding the labels of prescriptions that need refrigeration next to your workmate’s lunch – these were all part of the reality of fertility treatments in Canada. Then the global pandemic hit and something changed.

In fact, those in the field say working from home because of COVID-19 mandates was often advantageous for those undergoing this kind of regimen.

“What’s interesting is, through the pandemic, we’ve actually seen an increase in the number of fertility treatments that are happening,” says Carolynn Dubé, executive director of Fertility Matters Canada. “It makes sense because if you’re working from home, it’s easier to sneak in and out to an early morning appointment without anybody noticing that you’re not at your desk.”

A need for privacy and flexibility

As COVID-19 restrictions loosen and companies bring employees back to the office, many of those on fertility treatment journeys may soon be losing out on the flexibility they previously enjoyed. That’s a problem, says Judith Daniluk, professor of education and counselling psychology at the University of British Columbia.

“It is extremely challenging to fit the numerous appointments required when undergoing fertility investigations and treatments into a 40, 50 or even 60-hour work week,” says Dr. Daniluk, whose research focuses on fertility and reproductive health.

“With the exception of some of the big tech companies who provide funding and flex time for their employees to build their families and raise their children, very few workplaces prioritize supporting their employees in managing their family commitments, whether in the creation of their families through fertility treatments or when dealing with their family crises and commitments when they have children.”

Another notable bonus of work-from-home was the opportunity to keep fertility treatments private. Though the number of couples struggling with infertility sits at around 1 in 6, according to Government of Canada statistics, it’s still not a subject many people want to talk about openly at work.

People may not feel comfortable disclosing health or personal matters to colleagues, says Dr. Daniluk. They may also worry that employers might not support an employee wishing to start or grow a family, believing it may impact their productivity or contribution to the company.

“In the ideal world, employers would make supporting the family-building desires and commitments of their employees a priority,” she adds. “But this is far from the ideal world and despite the rhetoric, most small and large companies will continue to see the ‘costs’ of supporting childbearing and child rearing as burdensome and fiscally untenable.”

Prioritizing family-building for employees

Ms. Dubé says that while workplaces show their support for would-be parents through things like parental leave benefits, those going through fertility treatments are more invisible. As a result, they are often left unsupported, which can be tough on their mental, physical and emotional health.

“I think for employers, having a better understanding of the fertility journey and knowing how much it impacts the mental health of individuals and couples and putting support systems in place to help [can] showcase that they actually do prioritize family building,” says Ms. Dubé.

As Canadian companies grapple with talent shortages, having policies in place that promote family-building is just good for business. That support could include everything from company benefit plans covering IVF and egg freezing to mental health supports and flexible work arrangements.

“Companies who want to attract and retain young talented individuals are going to have to show that their workplace is going to support them in the event they have an issue with their fertility,” says Ms. Dubé.

As for Ms. Malhotra, her fertility treatments were successful and she had a baby boy nine months ago. She says she will continue to advocate for the same privileges that working from home afforded her throughout her fertility journey.

“Something beautiful that came out of the pandemic is that we’ve learned that having flexible hours and working from home does not affect productivity,” says Ms. Malhotra.

“We have this opportunity to create a structure that works for women, works for motherhood, and works for people going through fertility.”

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