The Issue You Probably Forgot to Consider When You Created Your Parental Leave Policies
April 22-28 is National Infertility Awareness Week. As both an employer and someone who has struggled with infertility personally, I know this is a topic most leaders know little about.
As a result, they unknowingly ignore how infertility affects their employees. They don't consider these employees' needs when making decisions, leaving the employees to struggle in silence.
One aspect of the employee experience that isn't often considered from an infertility perspective is parental leave. When a couple struggling with fertility finds a way to become parents, they still have unique needs. They might be exhausted after long and stressful treatments; they may be facing large medical bills.
Unless employers strive to understand and accommodate the unique needs these employees have, "parental benefits" will never be completely inclusive. Here are four things employers can do.
Don't earmark benefits.
Infertility and its causes are far from rare, yet many treatments aren't covered by traditional healthcare benefits. And while most health insurance plans help cover the costs of a traditional pregnancy, an infertile couple can't use insurance to cover the cost of an adoption.
"At any given time, it's likely that a large portion of a company's employees are either thinking about starting a family, already pregnant or struggling to balance work and a family," Paris Wallace, CEO of the Boston-based women's health and technology company Ovia Health, said via email. "There is no other issue that impacts an organization as profoundly as these challenges."
This is why many employers suggest offering other options, such as a flexible health-spending account. As Lori Casselman, chief health officer of the Toronto-based employee benefit and wellness platform League, pointed out, employees should have more discretion over how they use that money.
Other organizations, like Ovia Health, give new parents a "baby bonus." This means that, no matter how a couple become parents, they receive money to help them financially. The important thing is that every case of infertility is different. So, the less red tape attached to parental benefits, the better.
Provide time up-front.
Most parental-leave policies focus on time off after the child is born. But in the case of infertility, employees often need to take time for significantly more doctor appointments and treatments before any confirmed pregnancy results. If employers aren't understanding of this need, the result for the employee(s) may be more stress on top of an already difficult situation.
To create better flexibility, the New York–based fertility benefits company Progyny has established safety nets. "This support gives people the peace of mind that if they need extra time, they can take it. That comfort level goes a long way," vice president of people Cassandra Pratt said in an email.
The key to making flexibility work is letting employees know their responsibilities are being covered; their absence is not burdening co-workers. Instead, companies plan for situations where, when one employee is out of the office -- for whatever reason -- other members of the team pick up the slack. This way, every employee can help support his or her co-workers without being overworked.
At all stages of infertility, employees need support and understanding. Unfortunately, there's a stigma around talking about these issues. As a result, most people don't know about or understand what couples with this issue are dealing with.
"Even if your company isn't in a position to offer a fertility benefit, we suggest to first understand the problem and understand what your employee is going through," Pratt said. "Be there for them by showing your support, organizing a support group or by providing outbound education and support."
Never pressure an employee to discuss his or her confidential medical history. But do make sure the workplace is a safe place to share, if that's needed. Also, take the time to raise your team's awareness of infertility. Even if employees don't want to talk about their struggle, the rest of the company can benefit from knowing more about these issues and how to be supportive if someone they know is facing them.
No matter how well-thought-out their parental benefits are, leaders may still overlook something. This is why it's imperative to gather feedback from employees to identify any gaps.
Start by focusing on which benefits employees actually use, and for how long. Sometimes, a benefit or perk seems like a great idea, but when employees actually use it, they discover it doesn't meet all their needs.
Also, take the time to ask employees for their opinions. Most people facing infertility are tapped into a network of others with the same issues. They hear about what other companies offer and how they've helped. Encourage employees to reach out when they learn about a new benefit that just might better address their needs.