Due to the baby formula shortage, some new parents who might otherwise have fed their babies formula may have decided to breastfeed, if they are able to do so, at least for the time being. But for employees who breastfeed their babies, the return to work can be an overwhelming obstacle to nursing.
Often, "people start to nurse, but then it becomes too stressful and they give up," said registered nurse Elaine-Marie Cannella, a director in the New York City health management practice of consultancy WTW. For employers just starting to focus on family well-being, she advised, "supporting nursing mothers during those critical months after their return to work can be a good place to begin."
Employers, for instance, have found that lactation-support benefits help nursing parents stay focused, productive and more likely to continue working.
This kind of support is particularly important for new hires who are at an age when starting a family is a core issue. Employees not presently using lactation benefits will "see that the company is offering them and supporting other employees," said Marshall Staton, director of HR for Aeroflow Healthcare, a medical equipment provider based in Asheville, N.C.
The company has added lactation-support services for its employees that include access to lactation consultants and online classes for nursing parents, he said.
Benefits that make the lives of breastfeeding employees easier go beyond basic federal law requirements, under which employers covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) must provide the time and private space required to pump. State and local breastfeeding laws often have additional mandates and may apply to employers with fewer than 50 employees.
In California, for instance, the labor code requires that lactation rooms, other than a bathroom, include a sink with running water and a refrigerator or cooler for storing breast milk. Employers with fewer than 50 employees are only exempt if they can demonstrate that these requirements pose an undue hardship.
New York City requires businesses with at least four workers to provide a lactation space and to create a written lactation-accommodation policy, which must be given to workers when they are hired.
Beyond the Basics
Whether or not employers are subject to the FLSA or to state and local workplace lactation laws, they should provide, at a minimum, a private location for new mothers to pump milk, business advisors recommend.
Ideally, this would be a dedicated room with a lock on the door and some way to store the pumped milk in a cooler, refrigerator or freezer. Going further, employers can add ergonomic—or at least comfortable—chairs; calming music; and necessary supplies, like breast pads and individual-sized containers of ointments, in case an employee runs out.
The Department of Health and Human Services offers some basic information on how to support nursing employees, with additional information targeted to employers in specific industries and work environments.
[SHRM members-only sample policy: Lactation/Breastfeeding Breaks Policy]
Nursing "is a relatively short period in a woman's life," said Kris Pender, chief HR officer of Hanscom Federal Credit Union, which has 22 branches across the U.S. Women make up 70 percent of the organization's 250 employees.
Hanscom's operations centers maintain a dedicated room for pumping, with a locking door and refrigerator. "Mothers may pump without fear of being on view or interrupted and also have a place to store their milk safely," Pender said. The organization also does everything it can to make sure nursing parents working at branch locations have access to a private location whenever they need it.
"Our managers and supervisors understand that employees may need some temporary adjustments" to their schedules when breastfeeding, and managers are encouraged to find solutions "that will meet our workforce needs while respecting the needs of the employee," Pender said.
"Managerial support is essential to a nursing mother's success as she transitions back into her full-time or part-time role," agreed Brandi Baldwin, an HR consultant and founder of the New York City-based Calling All Allies Project, which helps organizations create and sustain equitable and inclusive workplaces. In general, flexibility should be the goal, she advised. For example, nursing parents may need approval to leave a meeting early if they need to pump, to snack during meetings or at their desks, or to take breaks to freshen up or clean equipment after pumping.
Employees who work outside of an office frequently face unique challenges when nursing, which is why Schindler Elevator Corp., based in Switzerland with locations across the U.S. and Canada, just added a free breast milk shipping service to support nursing parents who travel.
"This service is available until a child's second birthday and comes with additional benefits, including 24/7 telehealth care and on-demand appointments with lactation consultants while traveling," said Julia Hodum, the company's director of inclusion and diversity.
Ask What They Need
Employers should not assume that all nursing employees have the same needs and priorities. To find out what new parents need, ask them.
"I recommend partnering with internal employee resource groups to understand what barriers employees [who are nursing] are currently facing, as well as what benefits are important to them and their families," Hodum said.
Employers can also solicit feedback from employees who nursed in the past. "Ask if there's any way you can improve the experience and be open to listening to what these employees have to say," Pender suggested.
Lactation consultants can provide individualized plans and advice for nursing workers. The employer's health plan can be a good resource for lactation support, equipment and referrals to lactation consultants.
Baldwin urged employers to personalize lactation benefits and support for new parents as much as possible. For example, some parents rely exclusively on breast milk and require equipment or other supplemental supplies. In other cases, new parents may need access to certain types of formula or bottles or other supplies.
"Rather than creating a single benefit for mothers with children who are of breastfeeding age, employers should consider allocating funds that can be used for mothers to privately select items that will support them during that stage of their motherhood," Baldwin said.
Keep Tabs on Employee Support
"The biggest risk is that newer managers don't understand their responsibility to support employees in this way," Staton said.
Even if managers and supervisors receive appropriate training on supporting nursing employees in the workplace, they can still backslide. "It's important to continue to look for ways to improve and push back against complacency," he noted.
Joanne Sammer is a New Jersey-based business and financial writer.