For new parents in a typical working environment, breastfeeding can be a challenge. To clarify, what “breastfeeding” usually means for most in the workplace is expressing breast milk through pumping. Despite laws that protect the workplace rights of nursing mothers, and which require employers to provide for these rights, culturally speaking the burden is still largely on parents to actively advocate for the resources they need. Moreover, the pandemic has caused a number of workplace challenges that make it even more difficult for nursing parents to express milk at work.
This makes it all the more important that employers step up and adopt a proactive and supportive attitude on the issue. Doing so would not just be the right thing to do, from a legal and ethical standpoint; it could also lead to better business outcomes which would be win-win during what continues to be challenging times for everyone, employers and employees alike.
Breastfeeding benefits and barriers
Research shows that breastfeeding benefits both physical and mental well-being in numerous ways. Where scientific benefits are concerned, breastfeeding can improve the body’s levels of and physiological responses to stress. Given the increased stress that people from all walks of life are experiencing during the pandemic, it’s crucial for breastfeeding parents to continue a consistent routine of breastfeeding and expressing breast milk. Pumping milk yields many of the same benefits as actual breastfeeding.
From the perspective of employers, why is this so important? Symptoms of anxiety and depression, which have risen during the pandemic, are clinically shown to lead to higher rates of presenteeism and absenteeism as well as reduced work performance and productivity. Conversely, improved health and well-being improves employee performance, productivity, and ultimately, the company’s bottom line. Further, when an employer takes a proactive role in providing employees with the breastfeeding resources they need, those employees are more likely to be satisfied with their jobs, and we also know that job satisfaction is another predictor of positive company outcomes.
Unfortunately, despite all the benefits to organizations when they look after employees’ well-being, not to mention the legal and ethical arguments for doing so, working parents across a wide swath of jobs and industries continue to face many barriers to breastfeeding at work, including prevailing social norms or lack of family support.
One of the most common barriers, particularly in certain industries such as retail, food service, and manufacturing, is not having access to a dedicated space to express milk. Or even if there’s a dedicated space it may not be clean or private. Some workplaces ask employees to use the bathroom when they need to express milk, for instance, and we all know how bathrooms are not necessarily clean or fully private. In other places, maintenance rooms or supply closets may be serving double duty as spaces for nursing parents, and there are issues with these as well. In a 2019 study commissioned by Byram Healthcare, 33% of working parents surveyed reported that other employees have walked in on them while they were pumping, 26% have experienced rude or inappropriate comments, and 19% have been asked to pump elsewhere.
Another barrier that seems to be more common for parents during the COVID-19 pandemic is not having enough time due to the nature of their work or other logistical issues that have been exacerbated by the crisis. Nurses on the front line working 12- to 16-hour shifts at hospitals overwhelmed with patients are going to be hard-pressed to get enough breaks to express milk. This is despite the fact that they have among the greatest need right now for the stress-eliminating benefits of breastfeeding.
Companies’ role as advocates
The onus should not have to be on your employees to advocate for what is the responsibility of their employer to provide. Part of the reason this is still the case is the enduring stigma and lack of awareness on the part of companies and employees. Fifty-two percent of women surveyed in the aforementioned 2019 study were not aware it was their legal right to have a dedicated space for pumping milk for a year after giving birth. Many of them also didn’t realize that the space must be free of windows, or have window blinds, and that the door must have a lock. There must also be a refrigerator for storing the milk and access to clean running water.
Employers shouldn’t wait for employees to speak up, as they may be reluctant to do so given the stigma. Instead, they should take the initiative and ask their nursing parents who work for them if they have everything they need. If not, reach out and ask what they need. And how often do they need to take breaks to pump? (Typically, the time is 3-4 hours, but if your breastfeeding parent is trying to increase their milk supply, they need to pump more frequently; if they are decreasing supply, more infrequently.) Employers cannot assume all new parents will be on the same schedule and should inquire about how they may support their employees with an individualized breastfeeding plan.
Organizations can also foster tolerant and understanding workplace cultures through company-wide messaging about how to support employees who are breastfeeding, which ultimately communicates company-wide benefits to everyone. Get stakeholders involved in the decision-making. Train HR and managerial staff to be aware and respond sensitively and appropriately to employees’ concerns, whether it be new parents or other workers who may be feeling annoyed or envious because their colleagues are “getting more breaks” than they are.
As your employees with children become increasingly aware of their workplace rights, and naturally begin to anticipate and expect these rights to be provided for, the companies that step up early and proactively in this area will not only reap the benefits of happier employees, which of course translates to happier clients and customers, but they’ll become increasingly attractive to prospective talent and gain a competitive edge in the job market.