When Jessica Charbonneau decided to have a child through assisted reproduction a few years ago, it wasn’t cheap, but her employer helped shoulder some of the costs.

Charbonneau, a 36-year-old student affairs case manager at the University of Toronto’s Mississauga campus, started with intrauterine insemination, spending a total of $15,000 for six rounds. The university’s benefits plan covered the cost of the fertility drugs required to increase her odds of success.

But when IUI wasn’t successful, Charbonneau turned to in vitro fertilization. According to fertility patient group Conceivable Dreams, IVF costs an average of $20,000 plus roughly $5,000 in fertility drugs per cycle. She used the one government-funded IVF round provided in Ontario, with the necessary medications — costing about $6,000 — covered by her benefits plan, and conceived her son, who’s now two years old.

Read: Canadian employers expanding fertility benefits to include egg freezing

At the time, Charbonneau was acutely aware that, without this financial support, IVF would have been out of reach. Then, in July 2022, the University of Toronto rolled out enhanced fertility benefits. In addtion to its fertility drug coverage, it now covers $15,000 worth of IVF expenses every three months.

For Charbonneau, who thought she was done building her family, the enhanced benefits were a game-changer. She decided to do a second round of IVF to store more embryos and have another child when she’s ready. “When you go through IVF, there’s so much emotional pressure and financial pressure and this takes that away. When I did it the first time, I was hoping for one kiddo out of this process, I didn’t know that I could have a second. It opens up an opportunity that wasn’t there [before].”

Family-building benefits by the numbers

32% of Canadian employers invested in fertility benefits in 2022;

10% covered adoption and surrogacy benefits; and

• fewer than 10% covered childcare programs.

Source: Mercer survey, 2023

In the past few years, employee benefits, workplace policies and retirement savings programs have become key focus areas of employers’ diversity, equity and inclusion efforts as they seek to meet the needs of a wider range of employee experiences and attract and retain top talent. These shifting plans and policies have had meaningful impacts on working women at all stages of their careers.

For the sixth annual Women’s Issue, Benefits Canada spoke with women about how their benefits and workplace policies support their unique life circumstances.

Growing fertility coverage

According to the 2022 Benefits Canada Healthcare Survey, 25 per cent of employers covered fertility treatments and an additional 34 per cent were interested in covering them.

However, recent research from Conceivable Dreams found that, while the number of employers covering some sort of fertility expenses is on the rise, it’s far more common for employers to exclusively cover fertility drugs rather than both drugs and procedures.

But even that can be a significant help for employees. For Jade Hamilton, a 34-year-old elementary school teacher with the Avon Maitland District School Board in Ontario, fertility drugs were covered by the Ontario Teachers Insurance Plan while she was going through the IVF process. The plan’s coverage is a $12,000 lifetime maximum, separate from its general drug plan.

Read: Rothmans, Benson & Hedges enhancing fertility benefits, mental-health coverage

The financial support gave her and her husband some peace of mind during a difficult period. “We knew the money was there to help us financially with a process that’s already emotionally taxing and draining,” she says. She used roughly $6,000 of her fertility drug coverage and has coverage leftover if she and her husband decide they want to try to have a second child through IVF.

Taking leave

For many women, thoughtful and clear leave and return-to-work policies have been key to their success in the workplace.

Hamilton, who’s preparing to return to work from maternity leave in September, says she was given information on the option to buy back pension service in the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan within five years of her leave. “It’s quite expensive, . . . but I’ll probably pay back into it. In the long run, it just benefits you in terms of being able to retire early.”

Prior to taking her 12-month maternity leave, Charbonneau attended multiple sessions hosted by the University of Toronto about the leave and the return-to-work process. “There was a lot of education to understand what that looked like and my supervisor was so supportive. We were able to meet ahead of time, talk about the transition back and put a plan forward.”

She continued to contribute to her defined benefit plan while she was on leave, which she says was easier for the first six months, when the university was topping her up to 95 per cent of her pay. “The second six months was a bit more challenging, but for me it was worth it.”

According to a March 2023 study from Statistics Canada, employer top-up payments during maternity leave play a meaningful role in supporting women’s return to work.

It found that receiving top-up payments from an employer significantly increased women’s likelihood of returning to work after any length of maternity leave — nearly 99 per cent of these women returned to work, compared with 84 per cent of women who didn’t receive an employer top-up.

By the numbers

• There was a 25% increase in Canadian employers offering some kind of fertility coverage between 2020 and 2022; and just 5% of employers covered both drugs and treatment costs in 2022, unchanged since 2020.

Source: Conceivable Dreams survey, 2023

An employer top-up payment also allowed working mothers to take longer leaves. In 2019, just 56 per cent of women who received employer top-ups intended to return to work within 12 months of taking leave, a drop from 71 per cent in 2009. This indicated more were taking advantage of the extended 18-month parental leave introduced by the federal government in 2017, in which they receive 55 per cent of their average weekly earnings for 15 weeks and then 33 per cent of their average weekly salary for the following 61 weeks.

Read: More Canadian employers topping up maternity leave benefits than parental leave benefits: survey

“Mothers who work for a family-friendly employer or an employer that offers generous employment benefits and mothers who accumulated a larger amount of job-specific human capital were more likely to return to work than other mothers,” noted the study.

Flexibility is key

Flexible working options, which have become far more common thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, are also an important part of returning from leave.

Jenna Robertson, a 33-year-old senior audit manager at KPMG in Canada, says the firm’s flexible working options were essential as she learned to wear two hats. When she came back to work in the fall of 2020 after a 12-month maternity leave, she started at full-time hours, which worked initially because she was rejoining during her department’s slow season. But when the busy season collided with the realities of caring for a new baby who wasn’t sleeping well and going through teething, it became too much. KPMG gave her the option of a 70 per cent work schedule during the busy season and an eventual ramp-up back to full-time work.

Initially, Robertson wasn’t sure when she wanted to return from her second maternity leave this year, but felt supported by her manager and the human resources department. She eventually settled on about 15 months of leave and built herself a reduced schedule to return to work by using her accrued vacation time, the company’s annual 50 hours of paid personal care time away from work and its Summer Splash program, which gives employees an extra day off around long weekends in the summer.

When one of KPMG’s practice areas convened a focus group of new moms to learn more about the challenges of returning to work and how the firm could retain and support new mothers, Robertson jumped at the chance to be a part of it. The group helped to revamp KPMG’s parental leave guide and reviewed the company’s benefits and maternity and parental leave policies to address the gaps in knowledge they’d had when taking time off work.

“What’s made this a better process has been the support along the way and to be involved in the focus group was really helpful for me,” she says. “I was having challenges, but to know the firm recognized that and put a group together to figure out how to support moms in the firm made a huge difference.”

Meghan Knowles, a 34-year-old program manager of group operations at Sun Life Financial Inc., took maternity leave in February 2021 — just a few months after transitioning to a more senior role. “I didn’t think twice about the fact that I was pregnant [when I applied] and they hired me knowing that and didn’t blink an eye.”

Read: How Snap is using flexible working to help ease new parents’ return to work

In the first months of the new job, Knowles worked with her manager to transition her maternity leave replacement and went on leave feeling secure that her role was protected. She came back from leave to a full work schedule, but used the company’s care days when her daughter was sick or her daycare was shut down.

Flexible working policies don’t only support working mothers. Tracy Qian, a 22-year-old machine learning intern at Xero Canada, says the software company’s hybrid work model and paid time off policies have given her the best of both worlds.

As a young employee who spent much of her university years and early work experience working remotely due to the pandemic, Qian says she values going into the office for in-person learning and mentorship opportunities with her team and manager — and particularly getting to build relationships with other women in technology — but also appreciates the ability to work remotely and from other provinces. When she wanted to visit friends in Vancouver, she was able to work remotely from the West Coast. And the company’s four weeks’ of paid time off, available even to interns, allowed her to spend three weeks visiting her family in China last year.

Key takeaways

• The growing focus on diversity, equity and inclusion within benefits — and on women’s health in the workplace — is having a meaningful impact on working women at all stages of their careers.

• Clear and flexible return-to-work policies are key to women’s successful return from maternity or other leaves.

• An open and inclusive workplace culture makes it easier for all employees to seek support for and talk about their mental health.

Over the three decades 53-year-old Naomi Manley-Casimir has worked at Accenture, the lead of the global consultancy’s Song practice group has valued its increasingly flexible approach to work. Before the pandemic, employees had the option to work from home, but in the years since, more thought has been given to being in the office intentionally, as well as a new focus on individualized working hours. “We’ve created a workplace that’s a lot more human, a lot more accepting and inviting of all of what you bring to the table as a human being, as opposed to just focused on work.”

Workplace culture change

Years ago, Manley-Casimir experienced a slow decline in her mental health, to the point where she knew she needed a break.

When she reached out to the company’s HR team, she was connected with the employee assistance program and pointed towards the extended health benefits plan to get help from a therapist. While she felt supported by her employer, she recalls it was a challenging experience and reached out to the Accenture’s global HR lead to talk about how the company could better support employees’ mental health. In the years since, Accenture has enhanced the mental-health training and tools available to employees to help them manage and maintain their mental health. And in 2022, the company boosted its mental-health benefits to be a standalone part of its benefits, separate from paramedical coverage.

“I can’t know that my specific conversation was a catalyst, I’m sure there were other inputs, but I definitely did see a pivot in the way we’re talking about mental health.”

Robertson also turned to her employer’s mental-health benefits at a tough time in her life. In June 2022, she experienced a sudden death in the family and wasn’t dealing with it. Almost a year later, she tapped into KPMG’s $2,000 annual mental-health coverage, looking to talk to someone about the challenges of being a working mom and divvying up household duties, as well as working through her loss. As a result, she started seeing a therapist who focuses on women’s health, caregiving and the peri-natal period.

Employers’ growing focus on supporting mental health over the past few years has extended beyond benefits to create more welcoming and supportive workplace cultures — something multiple women cited as making it easier for them to get help and speak openly about their own challenges.

“I can tell my team freely that I’m ducking out to therapy,” says Robertson. “We’re hearing from leadership [about their mental health] and, as a manager, I’m trying my best to push that to my team as well.”

Read: 71% of Canadian employees say mental health impacted their ability to work in the past year: survey

For Knowles, an inclusive culture and an openness to discuss women’s health in the workplace made her feel safe talking about a recent pregnancy loss. In addition to being able to access formal support, including five bereavement days and mental-health resources, she knew she could speak with her manager and receive full support.

“Usually, women’s health is talked about in the sense of our personal life, but not necessarily how it would impact or influence your professional life. As an employee, it’s been incredibly valuable to me to know that culture exists.”

Kelsey Rolfe is a Toronto-based freelance writer.