What is one simple action that employers could take today that would have huge positive benefits on public health?

If I told you that there is something that all employers could do today that could positively transform public health in the future would your workplace support it? It’s not banning work place smoking, or cutting back on the free alcohol and fatty foods at work functions. It’s not reducing sugar or salt content in the canteen food. While all of these could have positive impacts, in many ways it’s much simpler and far more profound: supporting breastfeeding mothers and their partners.

Aside from the public health benefits, supporting breastfeeding in the workplace has many benefits to the employer. Because of the health benefits to the baby, a breastfeeding mother is less likely to need time off work to care for a sick baby than if her child was formula fed (HSE). Babies which are breastfed are less likely to have gastrointestinal and respiratory tract infections than those fed with formula. To put it in financial terms, according to one US study, for every one dollar spent on providing breastfeeding supports, three dollars were saved by the company. Companies which support breastfeeding see increased employee retention, loyalty and engagement. One US study found that workplaces with lactation support programmes had 94.2% post maternity leave retention rate, compared to the national retention rate of 59%. In addition, workplaces supportive of breastfeeding were viewed more positively by employees and by the wider public. For more on the business case for breastfeeding here.

So how can your workplace ensure that it is a breastfeeding-friendly place to return to work after maternity leave and put the right supports in place for both parents? Here are five ways your workplace can support breastfeeding mothers.

  1. Raise awareness of supports

Supports should to be in place before they are needed and easy to access by new parents. Everyone, parent or not, knows where to go to buy baby formula and could easily find the correct aisle in the supermarket or pharmacy. Finding supports for lactating mothers should be just as easy and apparent. Luckily there are a wide number of supports available and many of them are free of charge. Some of the supports are online but there are also drop in groups for new and expectant parents. In preparing employees for maternity or parental leave why not ask HR to include details of some of the supports along with the paperwork necessary to put maternity/paternity or parental leave in place? If you’d like to go further you could arrange to have lactation consultants or other experts give talks during workplace wellness events throughout the year.

2. Support for returning employees

Under Irish law, breastfeeding mothers are entitled to sixty minutes time off or reduction in work hours in an eight hour working day, without loss of pay, for up to 26 weeks after birth. While many employees will spend those 26 weeks on maternity leave, some employees may choose to return to the workplace sooner. It is up to the individual employee to decide how to use the 60 minutes, whether to use it so that they can leave a little early or arrive late in order to breastfeed their child. Or they can break the 60 minutes into several 20 or 30 minute periods to feed their child in on- or off-site childcare facilities.

Where this isn’t practical they may wish to express their breastmilk and store it until the end of the working day. Set aside a dedicated lactation room to support breastfeeding mothers when they return from maternity leave. Ideally, the room would have access to a sink for washing breast pump equipment and a fridge for storing pumped milk. While these may sound like another cost, they pale in comparison to the costs of recruiting or training a new staff member to replace someone who chose not to return from maternity leave.

3. Normalise workplace breastfeeding supports

Educate other staff members, particularly managers and supervisors, about the legal requirements in relation to breastfeeding and the public health benefits of it. This can prevent any potential misunderstandings about employees being absent from their desks for periods of time in order to breastfeed or pump milk. Keep the dedicated lactation room in place even after it is not in use, this sends the message that supporting breastfeeding is part of the company culture.  Many organisations like to think that they are “family friendly” because they allow employees flexi-time for school runs and events and parental leave. Imagine the impact of having family friendly policies in place which begin at or before birth, pre- and post-maternity leave.

4. Make it a part of your company’s Corporate Social Responsibility goals

Creating measurable targets in relation to supporting breastfeeding in the workplace a part of a strategic plan or CSR goals is one way to ensure that good intentions don’t fall by the wayside as soon as your first breastfeeding employee weans her child! Having the supports in place, recorded in staff manuals and familiar to all members of staff will help to make them a permanent part of your workplace culture.

Working mothers are less likely to breastfeed, and when they do choose breastfeed, to do so for a shorter period of time than mothers who don’t work outside the home. In Ireland, where 55% of women are in employment, supporting breastfeeding in the workplace would have impacts for both equality in the workplace, maternal health, reducing childhood obesity, and improving public health outcomes in the future. If your organisation isn’t already actively supporting breastfeeding in the workplace then it’s time to start asking why not.