Fertility support at work

Employers are showing increasing interest in reproductive health support, a webinar for National Fertility Week heard.



The Covid-19 focus on well being over traditional benefits is leading to a greater interest in what employers can provide on reproductive health generally, a webinar on fertility policies at work heard as part of National Fertility Awareness Week.

Speakers on the panel spoke of how fertility issues work where they are, why they are important and how they affect many more people than employers might think.

Chair Debi O’Donovan, co-founder of REBA [the Reward & Employee Benefits Association] which organised the webinar, said there was a ’perfect storm‘ of interest from employers in fertility benefits, particularly from those headquartered in the US who were already offering these benefits, from the growing diversity and inclusion movement and from the fact that people were becoming more confident to speak about any fertility problems they are facing.

Alison Kanabe, Senior Vice President and Head of Pensions and Benefits EMEA at Bank of America, said her employer had adopted a policy on fertility in order to be consistent globally and to support men and women who were affected. She added that her team works closely with occupational health, their health centre doctors, their Employee Assistance Programme [EAP] and others to ensure there is holistic support for those going through fertility treatment.

They have also reviewed all their benefits policies to check that they are consistent with their support for employees facing fertility problems. For instance, their premature baby policy previously excluded IVF children. Bank of America started with financial support, however, expanding their healthcare plan to allow employees to claim for fertility treatment. They have also looked at the need for signposting to specialist counselling rather than more general EAP support and at manager training in understanding the practical and emotional impact of fertility treatment.

Still taboo

Ian Rudkin is Head of Reward at pharmaceutical distribution company McKesson. Like Kanabe, his company is US-owned. It has 1,800 staff in the UK and is in the early stages of looking at what they can provide on fertility issues. He said infertility is still a taboo subject for many which people feel embarrassed to talk about. “Colleagues often have no idea how to talk about it and employers don’t know what support to give,” he said. Ian knows as he had his two children through IVF. “Fertility issues are far more prevalent than many people think,” he stated. He added that there are different avenues of support open to employers depending on their budget. These range from helping to normalise conversations about fertility issues and providing emotional support to offering paid time off for the many associated hospital appointments or offering to pay for treatment.

A lack of support at work can put employees off having fertility treatment or could lead to them leaving their job to look for an employer who is more supportive.

Hema Wara, HR and Client Services Director at reproductive health benefits provider Fertifa, left her job in 2019 after 11 years as a result of her fertility struggles. She said reproductive health issues, including menopause, used to be seen as personal issues that had no place at work. Employees were reluctant to ask for support due to worries about their career, she added.

However, she argued, the pandemic has blurred the line between people’s personal and work life and increased employees’ expectations when it comes to the support they want from their employer when it comes to their well being, whether that is mental, physical or financial. She expects that reproductive health issues such as fertility will soon get the same prominence as the menopause has received of late. The benefits for employers include reduced absence, greater engagement, productivity and retention and having a competitive advantage, although Ian admitted it can be hard to convince finance officers of the return on investment, given it is hard to quantify.

Awareness raising

For Hema, the most important first step is about awareness raising and ensuring employers know that it is not just a minority issue. She said employers don’t have to offer the full spectrum of support, but she stressed that one to one specialist support is very important.

Nevertheless, Ian said NHS treatment was a postcode lottery and he knew of people who had gone into heavy debt as well as couples who had split up because of the stress. He argued that employers who could afford it could step in to help once couples had exhausted NHS provision.

Hema said NHS waiting lists had grown a lot in the last two years, not just for treatment but also for investigations into fertility problems. Company medical insurance often doesn’t cover treatment and if it was that would raise premiums. Some schemes also don’t fully cover same sex couples. Hema said it is worth employers looking around at private providers’ policies. Alison added that uptake of paid treatment might not be very high so the cost would not necessarily be prohibitive. They had 50 people [out of 5.5K staff] take it up in the first year and since then take-up had fallen.

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