What should a comprehensive fertility support policy include?

  • A fertility support policy must be inclusive and not take gender, relationship status or age into account.
  • Flexibility is key as employees may not know the dates when they may need to take time off of work for a scan, to review a drug regime or see a consultant for example, while timings around egg collection can change overnight.
  • Employers should remember that fertility treatment does not just impact the individual undergoing it. Secondary and surrogate parents will want to attend appointments and provide support for the birth partner’s mental and physical health.

According to Fertility Network UK’s report The impact of fertility challenges and treatment, published on 31 October, 2022 25% of employees said they have a supportive workplace fertility policy, while 19% were not sure if their employer had a policy of this kind in place. This raises the question of whether employers need to look into this in more detail in order to support staff who may be struggling with fertility issues or undergoing treatment.

Education and conversations

Fertility Network UK’s research also found that 45% of those undergoing treatment or having issues felt that they received really good support from their employer. Three-quarters (77%) disclosed that they were undergoing fertility treatment to their employer, but just 47% said reasonable adjustments were made for them.

It is critical that staff do not feel that talking about fertility-related issuess will hinder their chances of progression within the business, or that they might miss out on opportunities. By opening up conversations, a fertility policy can be designed with employees’ needs in mind.

A policy of this kind must be inclusive and not take gender, relationship status or age into account. It needs to enable the employee to be open and honest about what they are going through and to align with the organisation’s culture, according to Debra Clark, head of specialist consulting at Towergate Health and Protection. “They need to know that having a family will not be frowned upon by the business,” she explains. “Support can then link into whatever benefits the employer may have to support the journey, including flexibility with working hours or needing time off for appointments.”

Appointments could be for scans, medication reviews with a consultant or egg collections, for example.

Employers could also offer paid leave for appointments that does not impact annual leave or sickness allocations, as well as flexible-working arrangements to allow space to rest and recover, and to allow for any side effects of medication, says Sally Blake, head of diversity and inclusion at Zurich. These should also be inclusive of not only the person going through fertility treatment but also employees who might be supporting a partner who is undergoing it.

However, it is important to be specific about the amount of paid time off an employee is entitled to and be clear about how many times a policy can be used, says Pollyanna Noonan, corporate partnerships manager at Tommy’s. “The employee’s partner should be accounted for in the policy too and know it’s there for them to access,” she says. “[Employers should] consider where [their] fertility policy sits and the steps an employee will take to find it. It should be easy to find and not hidden in [a] maternity policy.”

The more openly supportive a working environment is through visible examples of helping employees, and educating managers and co-workers, the more confident individuals will feel to ask for and use the policies and benefits in place.

Employees and managers should receive guidance on how to support individuals through their journey. Education and training are essential to help them to feel equipped with the right tools, as well as assisting others to be mindful and create a more supportive workplace environment.

One option is to train an employee who is well-versed in the subject to be an internal fertility champion, who can point people in the right direction for further support, says Deirdre O’Neill, chief commercial and legal officer and co-founder at Hertility. “They will not only outline the support available in the workplace but also provide employees with a baseline knowledge of what infertility is, the causes of infertility and what their different options are,” she says. “A fertility policy should be inclusive and supportive of all pathways to parenthood.”

Health and wellbeing aid

Most standard private medical insurance (PMI) policies still exclude cover for any type of assisted reproduction, such as IVF investigations or treatment, surrogacy, the harvesting of donor eggs or donor insemination or where it relates solely to the treatment of infertility. This is changing, however, and some now include cover for fertility support if chosen by an employer, which can range from tests to assess if there is a problem, through to supporting the actual treatment costs if needed.

There are also bespoke fertility plans available through providers for employers, which can offer services ranging from education, information and support through the journey, through to a subsidy to go towards any treatment costs that might be incurred along the way, says Clark. “Mental health issues can be supported through benefits such as an employee assistance programme, and these can be available as a standalone benefit or as part of a PMI, group risk or [health] cash plan cover,” she adds.

When structuring their strategy, employers should ensure that their policy does not just focus on the time off for treatment, but looks at fertility on a longer-term basis, says Francesca Steyn, director of fertility and women’s health at Peppy, “Not all treatments are successful and people will be dealing with loss and grief and may also experience miscarriages, so ensuring that the support does not end once treatment has finished is crucial,” she explains.

Access to specialist fertility counsellors can be of use in these cases.

Financial assistance

Financial assistance for employees on a fertility journey is another avenue of support that employers can offer, and can help to alleviate the stress on those who cannot access NHS-funded fertility support and who, otherwise, may not be able to afford treatment.

Fertility Network UK’s research revealed that 63% paid for their own medical treatment, with 12% spending more than £30,000 and 0.5% spending more than £100,000. With the average cost of investigations and treatment standing at £13,750, some form of financial aid might be worth considering if possible, particularly during the cost-of-living crisis.

“Employers can choose to provide funding towards IUI and IVF, sperm or egg freezing for single people or those transitioning, and donor conception for same-sex and heterosexual couples,” says O’Neill. “Also, offering employees proactive fertility testing through a provider will help provide answers about their fertility and reproductive health, putting them in control of their fertility journey.”

Outside of the box benefits

In order to create a true culture of care, there are other benefits that employers can implement which may not have an obvious link to fertility support.

Treatments like acupuncture can be covered through health cash plans’ reimbursements, while employers can also encourage good lifestyle choices such as exercise, diet, reduced alcohol consumption and giving up smoking. They could also highlight messages such as no laptops on laps due to the heat impacting sperm quality and providing employees with a clean and safe place to have injections or make calls to a doctor.

The trend towards providing digital healthcare and telemedicine opportunities is increasing, so employers consider offering access to fertility care through this avenue. This can reduce employee absenteeism for various appointments necause they do not have to physically visit a fertility clinic or request extensive hormone and fertility tests from a GP.

Employers should remember that fertility treatment does not just impact the individual undergoing it. Secondary and surrogate parents will want to attend appointments and provide support for the birth partner’s mental and physical health.

“They themselves may also be struggling and can sometimes this can be overlooked,” says Blake. “This might mean sleepless nights, increased anxiety, distraction at work or needing to take time out of work. Flexible working can be a real benefit for this.”

A comprehensive fertility support policy should, therefore, include a mixture of financial, wellbeing and healthcare assistance, but perhaps the most important way to ensure that an initiative of this kind is fit for purpose is to ask employees exactly what they want and need from it.