Breastfeeding when returning to work

Posted: Monday March 21 2022

By: Abbie Coleman

For many women, returning to work after maternity leave can feel like a daunting prospect so what workplace support is available for a breastfeeding employee what are your breastfeeding rights.

What are your breastfeeding rights at work ?

For many women, returning to work after maternity leave can feel like a daunting prospect from fears of having to express in a toilet stall through to storage of expressed milk and will you have adequate break time to express. So what workplace support is available for a breastfeeding employee what are your breastfeeding rights. We asked Katie Ash from Banner Jones some of the most common questions we get asked from MMB Magazine readers looking to return to work and breastfeed and what reasonable accommodations will be made for expression of breast milk at work.

Q/. Work have said they don’t have a private room or private location or suitable facilities to use my electric breast pump during work hours?

Katie Ash

Whilst there is no legal requirement for employers to provide facilities for breastfeeding, your employer does owe you a duty of care as a breastfeeding mother. I would advise that you speak to them about what reasonable accommodation they could provide to you and whether any adjustments could be made to working hours for you, or perhaps others, to try to find a way in which they can provide you with the privacy you need to enable you to express your milk.

Part of a reasonable accommodation or suitable working environment should also include a facility in which to store your breast milk.

Q/ Will work give me reasonable pump breaks to express breastmilk in the work day? Or will I only have my lunch break to express my milk? I sometimes have problems with my milk supply? What if I go over my allotted work time?

Katie Ash:

Legally, your employer doesn’t have to give you time off to express your milk. However, as there is a duty of care to you as a breastfeeding mother, and as they must not discriminate against you, you should discuss how your employer can accommodate your need to take adequate break times and that you will need some flexibility with this; and it is likely that you will of course need more rest breaks. Perhaps by agreeing to take your usual break times, including lunch, in a more flexible way.

The key is being in an open dialogue with your employer about what you need and how they can reasonably accommodate this.

Q/. Work is proving difficult with me pumping my breast milk, and I have no other option but to look at formula for my baby. Still, I have breastfeeding goals; it’s the best choice for me; I wish to stay exclusive breastfeeding, but it feels impossible with work and no private space.

Katie Ash

If you feel that your employer’s treatment of you could fall within the definition of harassment, that is to say it is behaviour which has the effect of either violating your dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment then you should consider raising this formally with your employer and taking some legal advice as this could very well amount to pregnancy discrimination under the Equality Act 2010. To raise the matter formally you should consider your employer’s grievance procedure (every employer should have one and should also follow the ACAS Code of Practice on Disciplinary and Grievance Procedures when faced with a grievance).

Q/. What is the workplace law on support offered to me for lactation breaks to pump breastmilk? I cannot find this basic information anywhere in the information given to me by human resources?

Katie Ash

Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon problem; and that’s because UK law does not provide for a specific right to reasonable paid or unpaid break times to enable breastfeeding mothers to lactate. There’s no legal requirement either for employers to provide reasonable accommodation or specific facilities to express or store milk.

There is simply guidance issued by the Health and Safety Executive which states that an employer has a duty of care to protect your health and that of your baby. In meeting this duty, your employer should undertake a specific risk assessment for you, and they should have done when you notified them of your pregnancy. It is also recommended (though not mandated) that employers provide a suitable working environment which is private, clean and safe, in which a breastfeeding mother can express and store milk. This should include facilities for you to lay down if they so wish. You should also be given adequate break times as part of this duty, though nothing is prescribed or mandated.

Whilst there is a general duty of care, it is arguable that greater protections are needed with more prescriptive rights laid out to protect breastfeeding mothers returning to the workplace.

Q/. Can I ask work to allow me to take the milk to my child care provider if it is in close proximity?

Katie Ash

You can of course ask your employer if they will accommodate this, but unfortunately, you can’t insist on being able to do this in paid work time.

Your employer must however provide you with suitable storage facilities for the milk which you express.

Q/. My breasts are considerably larger with me breastfeeding. There has been lewd conduct from a senior male colleague, and even my female colleagues are passing comments about the size of my breasts; it is making me feel very self-conscious and uneasy; what can I do? I have asked them to stop, but they have told me I am just being sensitive, and it’s the baby hormones?

Katie Ash: This sort of behaviour could very well amount to harassment under the Equality Act 2010 as it seems to fall within the legal definition of harassment. That is to say that it is behaviour which has the effect of either violating your dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.

I would suggest speaking to your employer informally in the first instance about the way in which your colleagues are making you feel and see if matters can be resolved that way. If not, then you should consider raising this formally with your employer and taking some legal advice. To raise the matter formally you should consider your employer’s grievance procedure (every employer should have one and should also follow the ACAS Code of Practice on Disciplinary and Grievance Procedures when faced with a grievance).

Q/. Is there an age of your baby that work can take away your breastfeeding rights?

No. Your rights continue for as long as you are breastfeeding and the steps put in place by your employer in the risk assessment that they did on your return to work will continue to apply until you have stopped breastfeeding.

Find an online resource list below:

Bliss Breastfeeding for premature babies

Breastfeeding NHS

HSE protect new and breastfeeding mothers at work.

Breastfeeding when returning to work: What’s the law?

What are your breastfeeding rights at work?

Returning to work after maternity leave can feel like a daunting prospect for many women, so what workplace support is available for a breastfeeding employee? What are your breastfeeding rights? We asked Katie Ash from Banner Jones some of the most common questions we get asked from women looking to return to work.

For many women, returning to work after maternity leave can feel like a daunting prospect.

From re-familiarising themselves with the day-to-day responsibilities of their role, through to re-acquainting themselves with colleagues and clients and ensuring that all of their relevant qualifications and accreditations are up to date, the first few weeks and months are often particularly busy.

On top of the added responsibilities of nursery and childminder drop offs, the restrictions brought about from Covid-19, and likely the lack of a consistent full night’s sleep, returning to work can naturally leave some mothers feeling stressed and overwhelmed.

While most employers are increasingly switched on in this regard – demonstrating a real desire to do as much as possible to make the transition smooth and manageable – there are, sadly, still many businesses that fundamentally fail to accommodate the needs of a new mum re-entering the workplace.

One of the biggest sticking points is in relation to those who continue to breastfeed or express milk once their maternity leave has ended.

Here, Banner Jones’ Head of Employment law, Katie Ash, looks at the state of current legislation here in the UK.

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This is a particularly important area of law for many businesses to be aware of for a number of reasons.

Firstly, a failure to comply with the legislation that is in place to protect the rights of working mums could result in a very nasty and costly legal battle. What’s more, many businesses want to engage a diverse workforce that best meets the needs of their customers and clients.

The past few decades has seen broadening opportunities for new parents entering the workplace here in the UK. From the introduction of paternity leave to increasing flexibility of working hours, laws and employer obligations have developed to help support the nerve wracking transition back to work.

To that end, accommodating women who choose to have children and then return to their careers must be a priority, and that includes women who decide to continue breastfeeding their baby once their maternity leave has come to an end.

Remember that there are no legal restrictions in the UK surrounding breastfeeding at work, and so it is important to encourage your employees to be open about their needs, and what it is that you can do to support them.

Indeed, the law requires employers to protect the health and safety of mothers who have given birth in the last six months, and those who are breastfeeding – regardless of how long a person chooses to breastfeed.

But what does this really mean?

Firstly, those returning to work who are choosing to continue breastfeeding should notify their employer in writing of their intention to do so. On receipt of the letter, a workplace risk assessment should be carried out and all reasonable efforts should be made to remove any health and safety risks.

Whilst there is no legislation which obliges an employer to provide facilities for breastfeeding, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) recommends that in meeting their duty of care to breastfeeding mothers, employers should provide a suitable working environment which is private, clean and safe, and which is suitable for breastfeeding mothers to both express and store milk.

The Approved Code of Practice issued by HSE says that this should enable the mother to lie down if she chooses. The toilets are not a suitable place to express breast milk.

Whilst the law doesn’t currently allow time off for breastfeeding breaks, ensuring that your employees have sufficient rest breaks comes under your obligation to make sure that they and their baby’s health is not at risk.

I would strongly advise having a conversation with your employee about your company’s specific breastfeeding policies, and to try to introduce a plan that meets the needs of both the business and the individual. This should include a discussion surrounding the length and location of breaks.

Employees in this situation are also entitled to submit an application to work flexibly. This could include a change in hours, days or location of work, and unless agreed as a temporary measure, will result in a change to their contract.

Keep in mind that you have a legal obligation to consider any request for flexible working, and may only refuse if there is a good enough reason which falls within the 8 permitted reasons under statute why such changes to a contract may affect the company.

Equally, if you do not provide a member of staff with a safe place to breastfeed or express milk, this may amount to sex discrimination.

Ultimately, the best way to ensure that you, your business, and your employees are protected is to try to find a solution that meets the needs of everyone.

Remember, as an employer you are permitted to maintain contact with your staff while they are on maternity leave. This is a great way to ensure that lines of communication remain open, and that you know as soon as possible what you can do to help them with the transition back to work and to make any necessary adjustments.

If you have any questions surrounding the rights of your employees who continue to breastfeed on their return to work, please contact the Banner Jones Employment Law team.