by Alan Hickey, Service and Operations Director, Peninsula Ireland
Ahead of World Breastfeeding Week 2021 (August 1-6), we conducted a global survey of 48,973 employers across four countries: Australia, Canada, Ireland, and the UK.
We looked at attitudes towards breastfeeding in the workplace and how businesses were supporting their employees.
Breastfeeding at work in the news
It’s highly likely that, at some stage, employers will have an employee who is breastfeeding or expressing milk at work. This question has been in the news recently with several Olympic athletes complaining that they were having to choose between their sport and their child. That was until the International Olympic Committee revised their rules around allowing babies to travel to Tokyo with their parents, if they were breastfeeding.
Within the remits of the legal protection, it’s good practice to provide breastfeeding employees with suitable support. After all, the success of their return to the professional environment will often directly relate to how they’re managed over the initial period.
What does the law say?
In Ireland, by law, employees are entitled to 60 minutes’ time off or a reduction in work hours in an eight-hour working day. This is without loss of pay for up to 26 weeks after birth. If an employee returns to work after this time, they do not have a legal entitlement to breastfeeding breaks.
Our survey showed that only 40% of employers in Ireland are aware of these statutory rights, so it’s clear there’s still some work to be done.
What can employers do?
Alan Hickey is Service and Operations Director at Peninsula Ireland. Speaking about breastfeeding at work, he says, “Returning mothers should not be introduced back into the workplace without an initial discussion regarding their return, in a similar fashion to any employee who has been on long-term sickness absence, in order to understand their needs, concerns and answer any questions they have.
“Raising the topic of breastfeeding or expressing milk can be uncomfortable, however 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.
“Speaking to the employee about whether they have breastfeeding or expressing plans will ensure the manager is aware that this is taking place, and, at this stage, the provisions or facilities provided by the employer can also be confirmed.
“The need to provide breastfeeding employees with resting facilities that allow them to lie down clearly shows that toilets, desk spaces or cars are inadequate and inappropriate places to provide. Instead, employees must, as far as possible, be provided with a private, secure and hygienic place where expressing milk can take place.
“It will often be the case that employers will not have a clear designated space available for breastfeeding employees but areas such as a lockable office that can be made private through covering windows or doors may be suitable for this purpose. Again, talking through the available spaces with the employee will help show that you are taking all available steps to support her at work.
“A further consideration will be the provision of storage facilities for expressed milk. Whilst most offices will have a communal fridge in a staff room, it may be the case that the employee does not feel comfortable using this so openly. 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.”