With recent studies showing that breast feeding employees can often feel overlooked and isolated in the workplace, it is important that employers understand their statutory obligations towards staff in this situation.
Under current Health and Safety law employers are required to provide suitable facilities for breastfeeding mothers to rest, including having the ability to lie down, as well as to provide adequate rest and meal breaks. Despite popular belief, staff toilets will not qualify as an appropriate facility and employers are encouraged to provide a private room, where employees have the ability to lock the door and make use of suitable seating and rest facilities.
It is important to differentiate between providing rest facilities and facilities for staff to breastfeed or express milk, as there is no legal requirement for employers to provide the latter. It is ultimately up to the employer to decide if they are willing to provide this, however doing so will help staff feel more comfortable and avoid them having to express milk in an unsuitable environment.
Furthermore, if employers are providing facilities to express milk they may also need to consider providing facilities for storing the expressed milk. It is highly likely that breastfeeding mothers will not want to store milk in the communal staff fridge and some thought should go in to providing hygienic facilities for this.
There is also no express law which requires an employer to give paid breaks to breastfeed or to express milk. However, a complete refusal to consider requests or discuss and accommodate a workable solution could lead to claims of sex discrimination. Instead, from a good practice perspective, employers are advised to hold discussions with the employees to determine what can reasonably be done to prevent them from suffering any disadvantage at work.
Depending on the pattern of the work, expressing milk in the workplace may require the employer to consider allowing a short paid break from work in order to express milk. Considerations should assess the impact of the break reasonably against the likely impact it might have on the businesses. Only where this request will have a detrimental impact to the business and cannot be approved, will the employer have to consider more onerous steps such as reducing hours or finding alternative duties. It is important to treat and decide each request individually and fairly and carrying out an assessment on the steps proposed, rather than unilaterally determining it is unworkable.
Although this may be an uncomfortable situation for some, employers should look to hold an open and encouraging discussion with breastfeeding staff in order to cater to their needs effectively. Employers who take this approach are likely to be rewarded with increased employee loyalty in the long term and will be able to reinforce the idea that they are a family friendly organisation.
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