Employers can milk breastfeeding for their own benefit, says expert
It boosts loyalty among women staff, so companies should rethink their stance, says an expert from UCT
Mothers who are allowed to breastfeed at work are likely to be more productive and loyal, say researchers from the University of Cape Town.
Companies should “rethink how they can support breastfeeding at work” based on her findings, said Ameeta Jaga, an organisational psychologist in the school of management studies.
After reviewing breastfeeding policies in Western Cape factories and government departments, she said employers who supported nursing mothers “can in turn contribute to a more productive workforce and an equitable society”.
While the proportion of babies who are exclusively breastfed has increased from 8% (the lowest in the world) around 2012 to 32%, it fell rapidly as they grew, said Jaga.
“There is this stigma about breastfeeding because the idea of breasts is still sexualised,” she said.
But low rates of breastfeeding contributed to the high prevalence of malnutrition, diarrhoea, pneumonia and under-five mortality in SA.
Jaga said her three years of research, which is continuing, had shown that while employers were not necessarily against breastfeeding in the workplace, “they don’t always know what to do to show support”.
She added: “On the other hand, employees who are breastfeeding also don’t know how to make their voice heard. Some said they are scared of speaking out about their need to breastfeed or express for fear of losing their jobs.”
Carene Joubert, a dietician and clinical manager at Milk Matters, an NGO that operates a milk bank in the Western Cape, said support for breastfeeding in the workplace would probably lead to mothers putting in more hours if their babies were healthy.
Joubert said that even though breastfeeding in the workplace was a basic right under the Basic Conditions of Employment Act – which says mothers with babies younger than six months must be given two 30-minute breaks a day – this was not happening in reality.
“In my opinion, maternal guilt of not breastfeeding your baby may result in mothers being more anxious, and that can work against the employer as an anxious mother will be less productive,” she said.
“If they breastfeed full-time, not only do they feel better emotionally, but their babies will also be healthy. Having a healthy baby translates to the mother working more hours and taking less time to look after a sick baby. So everybody benefits at the end.”
Sizile Makoba, a human resources specialist and member of the lobby group Normalise Breastfeeding SA, said even though breastfeeding is provided for in law, there’s no support for it on the ground.
“If organisations can support it, it would go a long way in helping to address the low breastfeeding rates in the country,” she said.
“Research shows that breastfeeding has benefits for employees themselves such as lowering the risk of ovarian and breast cancer and osteoporosis. Through supporting breastfeeding mothers, organisations also stand to benefit from having satisfied, loyal employees, and better retention of women.”
She said setting up a breastfeeding room should not be as costly and time-consuming as many employers may think.
“It’s simply a clean room with a comfortable chair, sink and fridge. So South African organisations really have no excuse not to have such facilities,” she said.
Jaga said that within her own work space she had begun a conversation with UCT’s organisational health section to consider a breastfeeding policy and guidelines for supporting breastfeeding at work.
UCT’s department of environmental and geographical sciences recently established a mothers’ room which offers a private space for breastfeeding mothers.
A similar facility was opened at the Red Cross Children’s Hospital in 2018.
“These small awareness shifts make a difference. One doesn’t have to implement high-cost structural changes,” said Jaga.
“Most research shows that formal policies or structures won’t work anyway if you don’t have the shift in culture or mindset of supervisors and management.”