Women’s Health Action surveyed over 500 women on their experiences of breastfeeding or expressing in the workplace:
➜ On average, survey respondents returned to work when their baby was 6 months old
➜ Nearly two-thirds (62%) of women who answered the survey were still breastfeeding or expressing
➜ 55% were employed part-time
➜ 8 out of 10 respondents indicated that their workplace had some sort of support for breastfeeding mothers
A large proportion of mothers returning to work will be breastfeeding, and the support you can provide as an employer is key for their success.
Common employer concerns and realities
Despite the large number of women working and breastfeeding, employers continue to have concerns about how employees can balance both roles and how it will impact the workplace. Below are a series of common concerns employers have, as well as the reality answers which should assist on overcoming these issues.
Concern: Breastfeeding employees will be more tired and less productive
➜ All new parents are tired no matter how they feed their baby. Breastfeeding women are no more fatigued than non-breastfeeding women.
➜ Women who are supported with their breastfeeding at work show greater loyalty and employee engagement than women who aren’t. High employee engagement results in greater productivity.
➜ Employees who breastfeed their children have less sick days than employees who artificially feed.
Concern: Breastfeeding is an activity which is unrelated to work
➜ Supporting employees to continue to breastfeed not only has significant health benefits for the mother and child but also direct benefits to the organisation and the economy e.g. lower absenteeism, higher return rate from parental leave and increased employee engagement and loyalty.
➜ Modesty concerns can be managed by providing access to a private space for breastfeeding or expressing breast milk.
➜ Acceptance in the workplace can be assisted by senior managers modelling clear support for the breastfeeding programme.
Concern: Difficulty with scheduling and/or break options
➜ Evidence supports that breastfeeding employees’ need for flexible scheduling is cost effective. This need for flexible scheduling is temporary and will reduce as the child grows older.
➜ The employer and employee can explore the employee’s personal work schedule to help devise appropriate feeding or expressing times.
➜ The number of breaks and amount of time needed to feed depends on many factors, but most breastfeeding employees will not require more than 20 minutes three times per day and this time will lessen as the child grows.
Concern: Resistance from other employees
➜ Research has demonstrated that where employees have had actual experience working with a colleague who breastfeeds, they are more supportive of women breastfeeding on return to work than employees who haven’t had that experience.
➜ Resistant staff may need information on the benefits to the organisation of supporting employees who breastfeed.
➜ Senior management’s support of breastfeeding will greatly assist acceptance within the rest of the workforce.
Concern: Cost of providing facilities
➜ There may be some initial costs; these could include the fit out of a room to ensure privacy and comfort (blinds, lock, chair, clock, and mirror) and/or the addition of extra breaks (for example a total of 1 hour a day for 6 months).
➜ Any immediate costs incurred can be offset in the longer term with improved retention rate, lower absenteeism costs, increased loyalty and positive public relations.
➜ Family friendly policies have been found to significantly contribute towards increased employee engagement leading to increased productivity and higher shareholder return.
Concern: Lack of space
Organisations are only required to provide space which is reasonable and practical. The most important part of a successful Breastfeeding and Child Friendly Workplace is the willingness to look for solutions.
Other options include:
➜ Employee’s own office.
➜ Use of an existing prayer room, meeting room, resource room, etc. A lockable door and roster will assist in ease of use.
➜ An unused office or one which is able to be easily vacated two or three times a day.
➜ A quiet curtained or screened off area of the workplace.
Where organisations cannot provide any appropriate facilities, provision of appropriate breaks will allow the mother to go to the child to breastfeed – either to where the child is being cared for or at a convenient place which has breastfeeding facilities e.g. an early childhood centre or large shopping mall. Discussing the available options with the employee is essential.
Concern: Breastfeeding isn’t really that important
The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends all children should be breastfed exclusively until 6 months, and then complemented by appropriate foods alongside breastmilk beyond 2 years of age. Breastfeeding has important positive health advantages (including in developed countries) for both mother and child, benefits which continue even after breastfeeding has ceased. Lack of requests for breastfeeding assistance (by employees of their employers) does not indicate that a substantial need does not exist.
Concern: Breastfeeding women shouldn’t be at work anyway
Like men, women work for many reasons.
Research has shown that there are two main groups of women who return to work when their children are young – one group work in high occupational categories and have high levels of skills and qualifications. These women gain a significant amount of identification and pleasure from their work, have a large investment in their education and training and are in high demand by employers. The second group is conversely in lower occupational categories with lower incomes. For this latter group, working is often an economic necessity.