Supporting Your Breastfeeding Employee

Let’s Talk About….Climate!

Many of us are familiar with the idea of a “chilly climate” at work. This concept, originally used by Hall and Sandler[1], describes the notion that certain work or educational institutions have a general feeling that is hostile or unwelcoming to women (maybe doubly so for non-white women). This chilly climate may prevent them from moving ahead with educational or career aspirations, or from fully participating in their workplace. 

In my Working & Nursing study, I’ve heard lots of stories from breastfeeding workers that reference workplace climate and how it influences their pumping experience. One of the main things I have noticed is that women differentiate between their broader workplace climate (e.g., the company as a whole) and the more localized climate that they experience day-to-day in their division or department. In fact, I found that many women had a positive pumping experience because they had supportive people around them, even when the larger company did not have the most supportive resources or policies. In contrast, I also found that some women had very negative experiences because of a co-worker or supervisor who didn’t support breastfeeding and pumping at work.

Workplace climate matters and there are steps that co-workers and supervisors can take to (re)shape local climates in support of breastfeeding employees.

Supervisors

1.     Inform yourself about the laws that protect breastfeeding employees and the needs of breastfeeding employees.

2.     Check in with your employee.

a.     Make sure she has resources to be successful at pumping. Don’t just assume she has what she needs. If you don’t know what to say, here’s a communication guide that can facilitate the conversation.

3.     Be mindful of time use.

a.     Don’t schedule meetings on short notice (if it can be helped). Don’t run over stated meeting times. Your breastfeeding employee needs to pump at regular intervals and needs to have her time respected to be able to do so.

4.     Talk about your own experience.

a.     For example if you or your partner breastfed, parented, etc., or if you know of another employee who has already gone through this transition and might offer advice or support. This doesn’t have to be much, but just acknowledging she’s not alone can go a long way.

Co-workers

1.     Understand that your breastfeeding co-worker may need extra support and accommodations temporarily to manage work and pumping.

a.     Expect that you should get the same type of support in return, if needed for your own circumstances (e.g., managing disability/illness, family responsibilities, etc.).

2.     Talk about your own experience if it’s relevant and supportive (see #4 above).

3.     If you don’t already know, or you think breastfeeding is strange, inform yourself about the benefits of breastfeeding and the needs of breastfeeding workers.

Regardless of whether you are a supervisor or co-worker, here are some strong DON’TS:

1.     Don’t suggest that a breastfeeding employee should pump in a bathroom.

2.     Don’t touch or move breastmilk containers (e.g., in a shared fridge) or pumping equipment without explicit permission from the pumping woman.

3.     Don’t express negative opinions about breastmilk or formula. A pumping mom might be supplementing with formula or temporarily using it while on medication.    


[1] Hall, Roberta M. and Bernice R. Sandler. 1982. The classroom climate: A chilly one for women? Washington D.C.: Project on the Status and Education of Women.