Just watching one episode of the popular TV series Mad Men provides a stark illustration of how quickly the American workplace has evolved over the decades. Corporate policies have eliminated smoking. There has been an increased emphasis on ergonomics to enhance employee safety and productivity. More recently, wellness programs have blossomed because healthy employees tend to be happier, more productive and less costly from an insurance perspective.
As companies continue to evolve their healthy initiatives, the next logical step is to improve the workplace environment for nursing mothers, an area where many companies are way behind or offer no support. The widely known benefits of breastfeeding are widely known: it generates protective effects for infants and positive health outcomes for both mothers and babies.
Almost 50% of the total U.S. labor force are women (www.dol.gov), many of whom are childbearing age. Although breastfeeding rates vary from state to state, the nationwide initiation rate as reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2009 rose to 76.9%, from 74.2% in 2008. It follows then that many women returning to work after childbirth need to manage their milk volume by pumping their milk when separated from their baby.
In response to the needs of these women, the most progressive companies and institutions are moving forward by providing breastfeeding employees with a physical space to pump, as well as nursing equipment and professional support. They have learned that these practices, in support of nursing moms, pay dividends in the short term as a result of less sick time being taken by the employee because a healthier infant is less prone to illness.
In addition, the supportive environment removes some of the stress from the mother of balancing her need and desire to provide for her infant as well as to be a productive and effective employee. Despite all the well documented benefits of breastfeeding the American workplace is still woefully behind in addressing the needs of nursing mothers.
Employers and co-workers also need to be accepting of the time mothers must spend to pump their milk at work, which may take them away from their work station several times during their workday. Although there are strategies to minimize the time it takes to pump and strategies for multitasking – which women are famous for – it still involves a time commitment and a supportive environment.
The needs of nursing mothers are not complicated, so I would suggest to employers that with some education and accommodation they could provide the support women need to be successful in achieving their breastfeeding goals. The results will be healthier women and babies. Improving the health of women and their offspring decreases health care costs, improves productivity, and provides a healthier workforce for many years to come.