Supporting Breastfeeding Employees in the Workplace

This week, we celebrate World Breastfeeding Week which aims to highlight the huge benefits that breastfeeding brings to both maternal and baby health. For some years, the Public Health Agency has been encouraging greater support for breastfeeding parents. Breastfeeding support in the workplace is one component that contributes to a mother’s ability to continue to breastfeed once they return to work. 

What the law says and best practice for breastfeeding in the workplace

Employers are legally obliged to protect the health and safety of all employees. However, whilst there is no legal requirement for employers to conduct a specific risk assessment for employees returning to work from maternity leave or for breastfeeding employees, it is good practice to do so as this will assist employers in considering whether any steps need to be taken to support breastfeeding employees.

Breastfeeding in the workplace can mean different things for different mothers, including going home or to their child’s nursery to breastfeed their child, their child being brought to them to be fed in the workplace or, more commonly, to express milk which should then be stored appropriately.

Before an employee returns to work, it is good practice to meet with them to discuss the arrangements for their return to work and as part of that discussion explore whether they require facilities to support their breastfeeding choices. Alternatively, where facilities are already in place within the organisation, these can be discussed together to explore whether they have any additional requirements.

Employers are legally obliged to provide a suitable area for a breastfeeding employee to rest and, where necessary, provide facilities to lie down. Whilst employers are not legally obliged to provide breastfeeding facilities, it is recommended that employers provide an area which is private, hygienic and clean to enable employees to safely express and store milk. The toilets are not suitable facilities and therefore employers should consider alternative space such as an unoccupied office.  

It is good practice for an employer to have a policy which sets out how the organisation will support with breastfeeding in the workplace and deal with requests from employees returning from maternity leave who may require changes to their working conditions. This policy is often included within an existing maternity or flexible working policy, and it is important to ensure that it is effectively communicated to those employees who are returning to work from maternity leave to ensure that they are aware of the organisation’s commitment to supporting breastfeeding in the workplace.

Supporting breastfeeding mothers in the workplace

Employees often discuss their breastfeeding requirements with their employer informally. Alternatively, some may submit a formal flexible working request to change working patterns or conditions such as seeking an extension to breaktimes to allow extra time for expressing. Formal requests tend to be less frequent as they relate to more permanent changes whereas breastfeeding arrangements tend to be temporary.

Either way, employers should consider any such requests objectively and reasonably when weighing up the impact that it may have upon business operations. Where employers cannot meet requests at all, the business reasons should be carefully explained to the employee. Where they cannot be met exactly, employers should consider whether there are any alternative arrangements which could be put in place to support their breastfeeding employees. Where an employer is concerned about being able to accommodate changes in the longer term, it may be possible to agree a temporary change with the employee which is subject to review to ensure that it remains viable for the business.

Where a breastfeeding policy is available, this can be a helpful tool to ensure that employers are accommodating breastfeeding needs in an objective, consistent and fair manner. A policy can also help to ensure that all employees understand the organisation’s breastfeeding practices which should, in turn, encourage support of their breastfeeding colleagues. 

Whilst the law does not require employers to allow time off for breastfeeding or to provide specific facilities to support this, there could be possible health and safety issues or discrimination complaints if breastfeeding needs are not addressed appropriately. Therefore, it is important for any requests to be carefully considered by the organisation and discussed with the employee before making a decision.

Employers should also endeavour to protect against inappropriate behaviour towards a breastfeeding employee. This can be helped by getting facilities right and also preventing any inappropriate comments or ‘banter’ that may be regarded as humiliating or offensive by a breastfeeding employee.  General training on bullying and harassment in the workplace can help to educate and reinforce the need to treat colleagues with respect and dignity.

Conclusion

Working with breastfeeding employees to achieve a supportive breastfeeding work environment can reap many benefits for employers, not least reducing the risk of potential claims but also creating a positive working experience for parents which, in turn, increases job satisfaction, loyalty and retention.  It can also help to promote diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

Resources
World Breastfeeding Week (WBW) https://waba.org.my/wbw/

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