Letting your boss know that you’re trying to have a baby used to be a taboo subject in the office, but recently, a small but growing number of companies in the UK have started offering fertility benefits to their staff.
Energy supplier Centrica and law firms Cooley and Clifford Chance are the latest to at least part-fund the costs of treatments like IVF for their employees.
Benefits range from free consultations and discounts on medication, to a package worth up to £45,000 per person, offered by Cooley.
And it’s not just the financial aid that matters, employees say, but the opportunity to work flexibly around the many fertility scans that are often scheduled at short notice.
‘The company had my back’
“It all depends on your eggs, on your hormones and your cycle,” says Hortense Thorpe, a Surrey-based Centrica employee who went through three rounds of IVF in a private clinic after she didn’t qualify for NHS treatment in her area.
“With your hormones, they monitor every day, and then it’s a decision they make and say – ok you have to come in tomorrow.”
“I would have to go into London to do a scan every other day, then there’s the egg retrieval and the implantation of the embryo, those are days that you have to book off work, because you can’t be back at work that day, usually you have anaesthetics,” she adds.
Centrica’s benefits helped reduce the mounting costs of IVF, Hortense says, and being open with her manager about what she was going through made juggling work and the unpredictable schedule of the treatment much smoother.
“It made things so much less stressful and it really took a big weight off my shoulders knowing that my company had my back, and it was ok for me to take that last minute time off, or having to be away, having to work from the clinic, but always reachable by phone, and finding flexible adjustments to my way of working, that makes a huge difference.”
Good business sense
However, fertility benefits are still relatively rare in the UK, and because IVF treatment is not protected under the Equality Act, many employees can feel it could harm their career if they told their superiors they’re trying to get pregnant.
But with one in seven couples struggling to conceive according to the NHS, some bosses say that providing workers with financial and workplace support to become parents makes good business sense.
“I think it’s the opportunity to offer our employees the best, the happiest, the fullest lives they can have with the view that if they have a happy and fulfilled life at home they will perform better at work, and we can retain and attract some of the best talent in the world,” says Ann Cairns, Executive Vice Chair at Mastercard, which provides financial support for fertility treatments, surrogacy or adoption, if they are not covered by an employee’s medical insurance, in all markets it operates in.
“We want to attract the best talent, and to have the best talent you have to be really thinking about the whole person,” she adds.
Changing corporate culture
Campaigners say that IVF funding is a welcome move, and better than egg freezing, which critics think could encourage workers to delay their attempts to start a family.
But Laura Whitcombe, global campaign manager of the 30% club, a business campaign aiming to boost the number of women on boards and in executive leadership, says that aspects of the corporate culture also need to change.
She told Sky News: “Having policies that focus on the start of the parenting journey is a really positive step but it has to be followed up by everything that comes next.
“It’s flexible working, it’s remote working, other opportunities for progression.”
She added: “If a company’s culture isn’t inclusive of parents, if it isn’t investing that parents returning from leave have what they need to progress in their careers, it’s quite shallow.”
In the past, employees would often hide family issues from their office life, but that’s slowly changing.
And some employers, it seems, are catching up.