Following the announcement of the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions, we explore best practice for breastfeeding working mothers.
The lifting of Covid-19 restrictions in England next week has brought heightened concern among certain groups such as pregnant women and new mothers required to return to the office after maternity leave.
Pregnancy campaigners have expressed anger that pregnant women have been left out of the latest working safely guidance despite concerns that they face a heightened risk from the virus. The charity Pregnant Then Screwed has been campaigning hard on this and expressed dismay that it took from the start of the pandemic until December for specific guidance to be issued.
Now, with rules on working from home when possible being lifted, they fear pregnant women could be more at risk, although maternity experts stress that employers still have a legal obligation to protect pregnant women’s health and safety during pregnancy. On 22nd July, the Government put out a call for pregnant women to come forward for the vaccine after criticism from groups such as Maternity Action that a lack of clear messaging around the vaccine, both to pregnant women and health professionals, was leading to high levels of vaccine hesitancy.
Labour MP Catherine McKinnell says the Government seems to have a “baby blind spot” and that pregnant women and new mums have been “a forgotten cohort” during the pandemic.
There are also concerns that new mums returning to work could be at increased risk from discrimination. So what are your rights? Existing regulations on return from maternity leave are still in place for mothers. Once maternity leave ends, you have the right to return to your job or to a suitable alternative job after ordinary maternity leave. If other employees have been furloughed, and it is an option you would have preferred, you are entitled to request that as well.
Here we look in particular at issues for breastfeeding mums who may face additional barriers on return to work.
In general, the UK government does not provide a right to breastfeed or express milk, but there is guidance on how to support employees returning to work.
While rules on working from home are being lifted in England next week, employers still have a duty of care to consider employees’ health and safety. To deal with concerns about the potential risks of commuting due to Covid-19 and safety at work, employers could continue to give new mothers the option of working from home or allow them to travel at quieter times if necessary.
Any employee who has been working for a company for 26 consecutive weeks is entitled to request flexible working which may include reduced hours or homeworking, depending on the role. So, even if other staff members are returning to the office new mums can make a request if they do not wish to express or breastfeed in the office. This can be turned down, however, for any of seven reasons.
If a mum does not feel ready to go back into the office, she could also ask her employer if she can take any annual leave accrued during maternity leave immediately afterwards to prolong her time away from the office.
It is recommended that mothers breastfeed for the first six months and supporting employees to breastfeed can bring benefits to employers too. For instance, it will result in lower absence rates due to child sickness, as breast-fed babies are often healthier and it will increase staff morale and loyalty, encouraging a higher rate of mothers returning to work. It will also provide an extra incentive when recruiting new staff.
If a job requires a breastfeeding mother to go back into the office these are some of the guidelines recommended for employers to help them:
Allowing enough breaks for mothers to breastfeed without this having any repercussions on their jobs or pay and providing them with flexible working hours are also good practice. If a mother needs to modify her working hours to continue breastfeeding and her employer does not allow this without providing a good business reason, it may be considered indirect sex discrimination.
Also, if a worker does not wish to return to the office when required, employers should look at alternative solutions, including offering a temporary move to another position.
Other recommendations include listening to feedback from previous breastfeeding mothers. This can help employers to assess what is working and what should be improved or changed.
Finally, it is important not to make assumptions as every employee will have different priorities and preferred methods of working – engaging in one-to-one conversations will help employers and employees move towards a solution that works for both.