Breastfeeding in the workplace has long been considered controversial by many, but a recent study published by the University of Cape Town (UCT) has proven that having a private space for mothers to do this creates a more inclusive and productive work environment.
The study was based on the recently-established mothers’ room at the university’s Department of Environmental and Geographical Sciences.
“Last year a similar facility was opened at the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital, thanks to hospital management, the Children’s Hospital Trust and the Child Health Advocacy Committee of the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Department of Paediatrics and Child Health,” said Associate Professor in the School of Management Studies at UCT, Ameeta Jaga. “These facilities have been a long time coming.”
According to the study, the country’s employed labour force hovers around 45% of women, and breastfeeding is a natural part of their mothering responsibilities and key for sustainable societies.
“But there’s little support for new mothers returning to work – and little grasp of the compelling business and economic benefits of breastfeeding for society,” Jaga added.
As a mother of two herself, Jaga’s research largely explores the work/family interface. Her work raises awareness on how workplaces can be supportive of women, including those who do breastfeed at work.
“Although the health sector has made a strong argument for breastfeeding, it’s still not seen as a workplace issue,” she said.
The health case
The 2016 Lancet Breastfeeding Series said investing in breastfeeding is the single most effective intervention in reducing child mortality. Breast milk contains a powerful combination of vitamins, minerals, nutrients, and antibodies specifically tailored to meet an infant’s changing nutritional needs. It is key in the development of a baby’s cognitive abilities, immunity and nutrition.
The World Health Organization (WHO) target of 50% by 2025 would mean half the country’s babies are exclusively breastfed, Jag said.
“We’ve come from a history where we were at 8% around 2012, the lowest in the world. Overall the rate has increased to 32%, but if you interrogate the data month by month, it’s still much lower in months four, five and six than in one, two and three.”
Research shows these low exclusive breastfeeding rates contribute to the high prevalence of malnutrition, diarrhea, pneumonia, and under-five mortality in South Africa.
Jagaʼs work also flags a transformational issue: gender equality in the workplace.
“Employers must rethink how they can support breastfeeding at work, and in turn contribute to a more productive workforce and an equitable society. There is this stigma about breastfeeding … because the idea of breasts is still sexualised,” she said.
She added, “Breastfeeding is a workplace issue. And it’s not just a woman’s issue that ends with maternity leave. In the context of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, specifically on health and well-being, decent work, gender equality and the overall future of society, supporting breastfeeding at work is vital.”
From a business perspective, Jaga has found that mothers who breastfed at work were more committed to their company or institution, and productivity increased. However, if legislation stipulates four month’s maternity leave and breastfeeding is optimal for six months, how do women continue if it is not supported in the workplace, she questioned.
A guideline in the Code of Good Practice in the Basic Conditions of Employment Act says that mothers returning to work should have two 30-minute breastfeeding breaks, over and above their tea and lunch breaks – but she has found that many human resources departments, managers, unions, and mothers themselves are largely unaware of this.
As an example, Jaga cites her work with ongoing project partners the Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers Union (SACTWU), which has more than 100 000 members and covers over 180 000 workers, and the Western Cape Government.
In the factory setting, mothers say the issue is not spoken of; they are afraid to raise the issue with managers for fear of losing their jobs, or simply do not know their rights. Managers either deny it is a problem because women do not speak about it, or they simply do not know how to provide support.
In the corporate or university space, breastfeeding women are concerned about the implications for career growth and promotion.
“What will people think if I ask to be excused from a meeting to breastfeed or express milk? Am I less committed? What will my co-workers think? It comes down to the fact that workplaces have generally not being been built for women and still have not transformed adequately to acknowledge the diverse workforce,” Jaga said.
“Before we get to any crisis, which is where I think the level of malnutrition in the province is already heading, we need to create a language around the business and societal case for breastfeeding. We need to create awareness.”