Company perks used to range from a gym membership to a car. Now a small but increasing number of UK groups are offering to cover the cost of in vitro fertilisation and surrogacy for staff.
The coronavirus pandemic has thrust employees’ mental and physical health into the spotlight and accelerated a trend towards bespoke human resources benefits, such as fertility treatments and advice.
“There has been a rise of mental and physical wellbeing up the corporate agenda . . . but the pandemic accelerated that massively,” said Helen Beedham, a workplace consultant who advises companies on fertility policies.
“Employers wouldn’t really have got involved in what might be deemed somebody’s life outside of work, but that’s changing . . . whether that’s relationship counselling or reproductive health [support],” she added.
In the past six months, at least four companies in the UK — the bank NatWest, energy supplier Centrica and law firms Clifford Chance and Cooley — have launched fertility treatment benefits worth as much as £45,000 per person.
Investors and consultants said this marked a growing trend, especially among multinationals in Britain, towards the type of workplace health policies already common in the US.
“[HR policies] might have been gym access and mindfulness sessions, but now it’s a much broader and deeper strategy,” Beedham said.
Declining fertility is a growing issue in developed countries, in part owing to people choosing to start a family later in life, along with other factors such as a 50 per cent decline in sperm count since 1970.
Fertility issues affect one in six couples, or about 3.5m people, in the UK today, according to the NHS, with growing numbers seeking treatment.
Champions of workplace fertility benefits say they can contribute to creating a more diverse workplace by reducing the emotional and financial burden on women, same-sex couples and individuals undergoing treatment.
“[Reproductive benefits] are very inclusive,” said Katie Beck, chief executive of Fertifa, a third-party fertility healthcare provider. “It used to be that it was seen as a ‘women issue’ but actually 40 per cent of fertility issues are male-related and any LGBT+ couple wanting to start a family will need support to do so.”
A company that offers fertility benefits can also help allay staff concerns about the lack of cover in employment law for those taking extended absences from work for fertility treatment.
“IVF is incredibly intrusive on your life but doesn’t have any specific protections under the Equalities Act,” said Beth Hale, employment partner at law firm CM Murray.
She said pregnancy was afforded protection from discrimination, but “you only get protection from the moment the foetus is implanted”. She added that employees “often don’t explain their absences because it is highly charged and personal . . . [Companies offering fertility benefits] helps reduce that stigma”.
Beedham, who went through treatment herself, agreed: “One of the hardest things about going through fertility treatment is bearing the burden of going through it and nobody knowing at work.
“It has a huge impact on your day-to-day life. At one point I was going across town to the clinic twice a day and doing injections in clients’ loos. It’s incredibly stressful.”
It is also expensive. A single IVF cycle costs more than £6,000 and comes with a less than 50 per cent chance of pregnancy. Surrogacy can cost up to £30,000, according to Surrogacy UK.
Beedham spent every bonus on her treatment for three years and said the uncertainty was “just horrendous”.
Although the total number of companies offering fertility benefits in the UK remains small, Will Gibbs, a fund manager at Octopus who invests in healthcare companies, said the “tide seemed to be turning”. He thought this was “partly because the taboo is gradually being eroded and more people are talking about their experiences”.
Some employers offer reproductive health benefits and advice through health insurance policies, others use third-party specialists, such as Carrot, Peppy and Fertifa.
Tech company LinkedIn was among the first large companies to offer UK staff fertility benefits in 2019. The company offers reimbursements of up to £21,000 towards IVF treatment or adoption expenses.
The same year, Goldman Sachs expanded its Pathways to Parenthood scheme to its banking operations globally, offering to cover the costs of treatments, included donated eggs, up to $20,000 (£15,500).
Last year, asset manager BlackRock began offering financial support to UK-based staff to cover fertility benefits, including the cost of counselling.
NatWest said it was persuaded to extend the benefits after lobbying by its staff-led Fertility and Loss support network. “Reproductive issues can have a profound effect on wellbeing so when our network identified a lack of support and funding for fertility treatment, we knew this was something we should help with,” it said.
Sascha Grimm, a partner at Cooley in London, said its scheme, launched in partnership with Carrot, was worth up to £45,000. “The firm supports all paths to parenthood,” she added.
Clifford Chance said its policy, which offers reimbursements of up to £15,000, was driven by staff demand for advice on reproductive health that it offered through Peppy.
But workplace support for such services has not come without controversy. “One element of this that’s been controversial is employers paying for egg freezing. Some people would say companies are just offering that because they want workers to delay their childbearing years,” Hale said. “But if employers are offering egg freezing as part of a suite of benefits, that’s another thing entirely.”
Beedham said one large employer recently decided at the last minute to cancel a planned workplace talk on fertility support because “there was concern that this could be interpreted as the employer encouraging employees to consider egg freezing in order to delay parenthood and prioritise their careers”.
Fertifa’s Beck said such cynicism typifies a lack of understanding of the issues. “In our experience, opting for [egg freezing] is nothing to do with intentionally delaying parenthood or putting a career first. In around 80 per cent of cases, women simply haven’t met the right partner” or opt to do so for medical reasons, she added.
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