World Breastfeeding Week: workplace issues

As World Breastfeeding Week begins, here’s a look into the latest statistics from employers across the globe.

breastfeeding mother


Ahead of World Breastfeeding Week which kicks off today, HR experts Peninsula conducted a global survey of 48,973 employers across four countries – Australia, Canada, Ireland, and the UK – into attitudes towards breastfeeding in the workplace to see how businesses were supporting their employees.

The survey comes as there is more interest in breastfeeding mothers in all different areas, including sport, with Olympic athletes being allowed for the first time to breastfeed during the competitions in Tokyo 2020. 

However, despite a growing awareness of the topic, statistics for the UK show how much more work needs to be done. According to Peninsula’s report, only 22% of UK bosses offer a designated area for employees to breastfeed, despite 95% of them saying they run an inclusive workplace.

Across the four countries analysed, the survey reported mixed feedback from employers. Often, it showed that women-led businesses or those with an higher number of female staff were more likely to provide breastfeeding facilities in the office and were happy to do so, although some considered it as a disruption to business on busy days.

“I personally have no issue. However, we are a restaurant business and when this happens, we have a lot of upset customers who will simply not come back,” answered a Canadian employer.

Other employers did not consider the issue at all and many admitted to not knowing how to approach it if they had to and others saying they would only be willing to consider it only if a legislation came in place. Some were reluctant to set up dedicated private spaces for breastfeeding or expressing milk, but were willing to offer their office if needed.

In some cases, employers were totally against breastfeeding or hiring working mothers at all.

“If they’re still breastfeeding then they should not be back to work. It’s their choice to breast feed or not,” said an Irish employer.

In Australia another respondent said: “I don’t hire women, and now I will never hire a man who has not already started his family. I cannot afford to pay people to not be here when they choose to create a new life. Their choice, not mine!”

However, some employers are seeing the benefits of being an inclusive company.

“We are an open and friendly company that feels that allowing staff the space or time (within reason) to follow their cultural/moral/religious/maternal requirements for a pre-agreed part of their working day makes for a happier, stronger and more productive team,” said one UK respondent.

Tackling changes in the office

Kate Palmer, HR Advice and Consultancy Director at Peninsula UK, stresses the importance of approaching returning mothers in the same way as “any employee who has been on long-term sickness absence, in order to understand their needs, concerns and answer any questions they have”.

Communication between the returning employee and the employers is crucial in understanding what the individual might need to breastfeed or express milk.

Palmer offers advice regarding raising the subject of breastfeeding, which can be uncomfortable. “Line managers can undertake training in how to carry out sensitive conversations such as this. Alternatively, you may wish to ask whether the employee would feel more comfortable discussing the matter with a female member of management or HR,” says Palmer.

Offices, particularly smaller ones, will not always have the facilities to breastfeed or express milk, but alternative solutions can be found. Palmer suggests that “areas such as a lockable office that can be made private through covering windows or doors may be suitable for this purpose”.

Regarding the storage of the milk, Palmer says that “possible options include providing a separate fridge area or allocating a space within the communal fridge using a sealable container or cool box which maintains a hygienic storage space”.

All of these are recommendations that have been made to encourage employers to support breastfeeding mothers at work, showing that simple solutions can often be found without being as expensive or overwhelming as some employers might think.

Also, by taking these steps, there is a higher chance of retaining staff and setting an example for other companies as well as allowing mothers to return to a comfortable environment which is beneficial for both parties.

World Breastfeeding Week is a great opportunity to discuss this issue and look at possible options as well as the benefits of supporting breastfeeding in the office. 

* For more information on breastfeeding at work post-pandemic click here.

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