We Wanted More than a “Policy that Supports Only Women”—The Road Leading to Mercari Implementing Egg Freezing to our Employee Benefits

Once again Mercari has upgraded its employee benefits program, known internally as the “Merci Box Benefit Plan.” But this time, the lion’s share of our update isn’t just what we offer with such things as financial support for egg freezing; we’ve also broadened the scope of our benefits programs. No longer restricted to “members only,” we’ve extended some of our benefits to also apply to an employee’s spouse, partner, or pet.

In February 2016, as a way of providing an environment where our employees can Go Bold and give 100%, Mercari implemented the Merci Box HR system. Now as of May 1, 2021, Merci Box has implemented two new programs on a trial basis: 1) financial support for ovum freezing and 2) financial support for early childcare. What’s more, we’ve expanded our sick leave policy to cover not just illnesses and injuries suffered by our employees, but also leave to care for a family member, including a spouse, partner, or pet.

Under the banner of a policy of supporting employees to reduce uncertainty and allow them to keep working, Merci Box continues to make improvements in line with our employees’ workstyles. So what led us to implement programs for things like egg freezing, and why did we expand the scope of eligibility for some of the programs we offer? Mercan put these questions to benefits program designers Shunpei Kohno and Tomoha Iyama of the People Experience (Payroll) Team.

*During this interview, masks were removed only when taking pictures.

Featured in this article

  • Shunpei Kohno

    Kohno is the Manager of the People Experience (Payroll) Team. As a new graduate, he joined a construction machinery manufacturer where he worked in HR for the company’s head office and plants. He also worked on managing company expats dispatched to Oceania and Southeast Asia. After joining Mercari in 2018, he was mainly involved in building and optimizing the payroll operations during the growth period of our organization as well as the planning and operation of our benefit programs. In addition to these duties, he is also in charge of payroll work support for Kashima Antlers F.C. Co., Ltd., a Mercari Group company.

  • Tomoha Iyama

    Iyama works on the People Experience (Payroll) Team. She joined Mercari in April 2018 and was in charge of fostering inhouse communication and culture for General Affairs. In January 2020, she moved to the People Experience Team and is now in charge of onboarding, resignations, and administrative leave, as well as athlete management.

Egg freezing “is not just intended for our female employees; the spouse or partner of any Mercari employee is also eligible.”

– As part of this update, we have implemented two programs on a trial basis, namely, financial support for egg freezing and financial support for early childcare. We have also updated our benefits program to expand the scope of sick leave. Looking at these changes, what many of our readers are likely curious about is the egg freezing program. Why did Mercari decide to implement this program on a trial basis? Did we receive a lot of requests from our employees to implement this benefit?

Kohno: No, there weren’t necessarily a lot of employees who said they wanted us to implement egg freezing as a benefit. But as a company, we determined that even though this is not a pressing issue at the moment, it is one of the options for future diverse work styles and a necessary form of support. We therefore decided to implement it on a trial basis.

Since the implementation of Merci Box in 2016, financial support for fertility treatments has been one of the programs available under our benefits plan. We implemented this because fertility treatments were not covered by health insurance at the time. The overlying premise of Merci Box is to reduce the uncertainty of employees who work for Mercari and to provide an environment where members can Go Bold to the fullest and maximize their performance. The development that led the company to support this benefit is that fertility treatments weren’t covered by government support either, and we determined that employees would have to work while shouldering the burden of the treatments. Currently, the Japanese government is moving toward covering fertility treatments under public insurance. However, we believe it will take time for policy reform regarding egg freezing, so we decided to provide support to our employees.

Shunpei Kohno (People Experience (Payroll) Team)

– Why did you choose to implement egg freezing?

Kohno: Well, for starters, the life events of pregnancy and birth tend to overlap with the time in people’s lives when they would like to prioritize their careers. In some cases, people have had to choose one over the other. With this egg freezing program, we would like to provide support to employees who feel uneasy and out of options. Egg freezing programs themselves have been implemented mainly by overseas tech giants and have gained a lot of attention. We took our cue from these companies and looked at the differences in healthcare costs between Japan and the US when designing this program.

What’s more, egg freezing is not limited to our female employees, but applies to all employees. Spouses and partners are also eligible. Support for the cost of egg freezing is included as a part of our existing fertility treatment support, which is capped at 2 million yen per child. There are no restrictions based on contract types or how long you must have been with the company; in effect, employees can use this benefit immediately after they join the company.

Iyama: We also bundle financial support for egg freezing together with accurate knowledge of the procedures involved. As you may know, egg freezing does not guarantee that you will be able to get pregnant. What’s more, it involves substantial physical stress. Simply implementing egg freezing as a program on a trial basis and only providing financial support to cover the costs somehow felt like the wrong approach. This is why we had a preliminary hearing with a specialist physician and based our decision on various situations both inside and outside of Japan. Also, for Merci Box, we are doing things like inviting a specialist to give courses in order to bundle accurate knowledge together with the support we provide.

To support caring for family members not covered under childcare and caregiving leave, we have expanded the applicable range of sick leave.

– Other than implementing a program for egg freezing together with financial support for early childcare, we have also expanded the situations to which sick leave can be applied. How did this come to be?

Kohno: Mercari is a company where both our business and our organization tend to change quickly. Because of this, there were people who said they were having a hard time catching up with what was happening at the office after they returned to work from childcare leave. What’s more, enrolling a child less than 1 year of age in a registered daycare presented a significant challenge, so returning to work quickly meant that they had to shoulder daycare costs. For this reason, they would continue to stay on leave for the duration that the government would pay out benefits, and as a result there were also cases where people would give up on returning to work early. We believed that if the company provided financial support for daycare costs, it would give our employees more options for choosing when they would return to work and increase their flexibility for career building and life planning. This led us to implement the support for early childcare costs benefit.

Iyama: Like the trial-basis implementation of egg freezing, we have also expanded the financial support for early childcare costs benefit to include the spouse or partner of Mercari employees. We did this because if this benefit served only to care for our female employees, it would not work as a key solution.

Tomoha Iyama

– At the same time, Mercari also expanded the scope of things covered by sick leave, correct?

Kohno: We originally implemented this benefit in 2019 to allow our members to take leave if they weren’t feeling well. However, we learned that there were cases of people using their paid leave for things like caring for family members that could not be covered by the childcare leave or nursing care leave policies, as well as cases of people who wanted to hold on to their paid leave for eventualities. The original objective of offering people paid leave is for them to use their time off to refresh themselves, body and mind. But in spite of this, people would hold onto their days off so that they would be ready in the event anything happened to someone in their family… Well, that’s not really what paid leave is meant for, is it? To remedy this, we decided to expand the scope of sick leave to help do away with this sort of uncertainty.

Mercari aims to be a diverse organization. And there are as many types of families as there are Mercari employees. Some of our employees might live apart from their families, and there might be others who see their pets as family. And if that’s the case, well, family members and partners are of course cherished family members, but then so are employees’ family members who live apart from the employee and so are the employee’s pets. Our assumption was that if the Mercari employee considers someone to be family, the employee should be able to take leave to care for them regardless of who said family member is.

The one thing we paid the most attention to was “not to be constrained by preconceived notions of regular benefit programs.”

Iyama: Can I say one more thing?

– Yes, of course.

Iyama: In this interview, what we would like to emphasize is that this update is not limited to just our employees alone.

Especially when it comes to egg freezing, I think people have this strong impression that this benefit is only available to our female members. I’m a little embarrassed to say this, but both Kohno and I thought that this was the case at first. When the time came to start thinking about the details of this program, we had hearings with other employees and for the first time I became aware of my unconscious bias of thinking that egg freezing is an issue that only affects our female employees. The effects of this revelation are not limited to egg freezing either. We also expanded the scope of sick leave and financial support for early childcare as a result.

Kohno: I think the situation is exactly as you described it: In a society of diversifying work styles, to allow various employees to be able to think about building their careers and life plans, our aim is to provide a wider range of options. Therefore, this update is not just about the content that deals with egg freezing. You could say that the wide expansion of the scope of what our benefits cover also represents a big change.

– How did you decide on the program content?

Kohno: We brainstormed about 30 to 40 suggestions, and then we narrowed down our choices based on the phase of the company while also getting input from people in the company. To narrow down the number of ideas, we asked whether any given suggestion would link to the creation of an environment where our diverse talent would thrive. We chose initiatives that would focus on this.

– So it sounds like you chose programs that would provide the support needed to allow people to continue working and at the same time bring about diversity as an organization, right? Did you have hearings with all the employees of the company?

Kohno: We didn’t really advertise this, but we did investigate the needs of Mercari employees through our HRBPs (HR Business Partner). We also spoke with people who have returned from childcare leave, and had a lot of hearings with them.

If you include my time with my previous employer, I have worked in the HR field for a while, and I think there are two things that are crucial: 1) “Don’t be constrained by preconceived notions of regular benefit programs,” and 2) “Think about where you truly want to be in life and then backtrack a route that will get you there.” I think that, for the implementation of these latest programs, you could say that the process of listening to what employees had to say was an important point.

Iyama: In addition, there are also employees who are active in initiatives like the D&I Community, Women@Mercari, and Pride@Mercari; these organizations have a lot of allies (supporters), and so we also had hearings with the people active in these groups. We asked people whether, from a D&I point of view, they thought that we were missing anything, and collected their opinions on the topic. The revelations that I mentioned earlier came from here.

We believe that respecting all manner of value is something that people who work at a diverse company demand. People tend to perceive egg freezing as strongly projecting a value that says “childbirth and child rearing are a given,” but this isn’t necessarily the case, and to convey that we are not expecting everyone to have children, when we presented this to the entire company, we worded our message carefully to prevent any misunderstandings.

What about employees’ reactions after this program was announced?

– After you announced the implementation of this benefit program, how did people at the company react?

Kohno: Even for us, implementing the egg freezing program screamed Go Bold, and there were various viewpoints on this, so I figured that there would be some people who had strong opinions on this topic. However, people’s reactions were a lot more positive than I had expected. I got the impression that there were a lot of people who had recently been thinking about having the egg freezing procedure done. In that sense, this benefit program may have actually filled a need nicely.

Iyama: I also got the impression that people accepted that what is at the heart of this program is PX’s desire to provide an environment where members can Go Bold to the fullest and maximize their performance. This also answers people’s questions about why we’re doing this and what the impact will be. We heard from some employees who said they felt that the company was really looking out for them. For those of us in the PX Team, it was really encouraging to hear that we’re getting closer to our goal of providing an environment where members really can do bold things and maximize their performance.

Kohno: Among some of the comments we received, one person said “the fact that the programs continue to be updated periodically is evidence that people use them.” I think that people understand that our intention is to continue to update our programs as the situation merits and according to people’s needs in order to support our employees. I was a little relieved when I realized this was the case. (laughs)

Iyama: Yes, so was I! (laughs)

– I feel like there is something pretty unique about how we create our HR systems at Mercari—including Merci Box. Am I right?

Kohno: Yeah, I agree. At Mercari we get to experience the thrill of implementing programs that are unprecedented in Japan. But it’s precisely because there are no precedents for some of the things we’re implementing that we also have to communicate a lot of information to our employees, and in doing so we discover a lot of things for the first time. This is one of the appealing things about working in HR at Mercari. I’m grateful that we have an environment where there’s an inhouse D&I team that we can consult with straight away. It’s hard to know how to design a program, but when this results in getting a positive reaction internally, it makes you feel like the job is worthwhile. Going forward, I don’t want us to just be happy with the status quo; even after we implement these initiatives, I want to provide rock solid support.

Iyama: It’s really difficult, but it impacts employees’ workstyles directly, so it really feels worthwhile. Each person who works for Mercari has their own way of thinking and their own background, so it can be difficult to cover everything, and I think that can be kind of hard to manage for some. However, we’re happy to have the chance to be involved with people with such diverse values!

As I said just before, we also bundle financial support for egg freezing together with accurate knowledge of the procedures involved. We think about what information employees would need to have to determine whether or not to freeze their eggs; and for this program, providing information to employees in order to allow them to make this decision is indispensable. As for me, going forward I would like to contribute to providing people with information by doing things like sharing our ideas with expert physicians and organizing lectures.

To become an organization with global competitive power, we have to continue to provide support in terms of benefits.

– So then you’ll continue to update Merci Box in the future too, right?

Kohno: Generally speaking, we examine the program content for Merci Box based on a policy of creating an environment where members can Go Bold to the fullest and maximize their performance by providing support that allows people to continue to work and eases their uncertainty.

We have continued to update our benefit programs, and this does not end once we implement a new program. The benefit programs are a service that we, the PX Team, provide. It’s only natural that we should update the incentive programs regularly and not allow them to lose their relevance. We adjust them from a number of perspectives, such as whether people are actually using the program. We also ask questions like, “what does the company want to focus on?” and “based on current social problems, what kinds of programs are needed?” While there are initiatives that add to the programs, there are other initiatives that remove them. I would like to maintain an environment where employees can go bold while always valuing the thoughts of our members.

Iyama: I’ve already said this a number of times, but HR programs are not finished the moment they are implemented. We will continue to add programs and revise them while keeping our eye on social change and the needs of the company.

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