The recently established mothers’ room in the Department of Environmental and Geographical Sciences offers a private space for breastfeeding mothers, accommodations which Associate Professor Ameeta Jaga says are vital to creating an inclusive, productive workplace.
Last year a similar facility was opened at the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital, thanks to hospital management, the Children’s Hospital Trust and the Child Health Advocacy Committee of the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Department of Paediatrics and Child Health.
These facilities have been a long time coming, said Jaga, an organisational psychologist in the commerce faculty’s School of Management Studies. The country’s employed labour force hovers around 45% women and breastfeeding is a natural part of their mothering responsibilities and key for sustainable societies.
But there’s little support for new mothers returning to work – and little grasp of the compelling business and economic benefits of breastfeeding for society.
A mother of two, Jaga’s research explores the work/family interface. While breastfeeding is about women’s individual choices and circumstances, her work raises awareness on how workplaces can be supportive of women, including those who do breastfeed at work.
Although the health sector has made a strong argument for breastfeeding, it’s still not seen as a workplace issue, said Jaga.
The health case
The 2016 Lancet Breastfeeding Series said investing in breastfeeding is the most effective single intervention in reducing child mortality. Breast milk contains a powerful combination of vitamins, minerals, nutrients and antibodies specifically tailored to meet an infant’s changing nutritional needs. It is key to cognitive abilities, immunity and nutrition.
The World Health Organization (WHO) target of 50% by 2025 means half the country’s babies are exclusively breastfed, said Jaga.
“We’ve come from a history where we were at 8% around 2012, the lowest in the world. Overall the rate has increased to 32%, but if you interrogate the data month by month, it’s still much lower in months four, five and six than in one, two and three.”
Research shows that these low exclusive breastfeeding rates contribute to the high prevalence of malnutrition, diarrhoea, pneumonia and under-five mortality in South Africa.
Jagaʼs work also flags a transformational issue – gender equality in the workplace.
“Employers must rethink how they can support breastfeeding at work, and in turn contribute to a more productive workforce and an equitable society. There is this stigma about breastfeeding ... because the idea of breasts is still sexualised.”
“Breastfeeding is a workplace issue. And it’s not just a woman’s issue that ends with maternity leave”
“Breastfeeding is a workplace issue,” she said.
“And it’s not just a woman’s issue that ends with maternity leave. In the context of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, specifically on health and well-being, decent work, gender equality and the overall future of society, supporting breastfeeding at work is vital.”
From a business perspective, Jaga has found that mothers who breastfed at work were more committed to their company or institution, and productivity increased.
However, if legislation stipulates four month’s maternity leave and breastfeeding is optimal for six months, how do women continue if it is not supported in the workplace, she questioned.
A guideline in the Code of Good Practice in the Basic Conditions of Employment Act says that mothers returning to work should have two 30-minute breastfeeding breaks, over and above their tea and lunch breaks. But she has found that many human resources departments, managers, unions – and mothers themselves – are largely unaware of this.
As an example, she cites her work with ongoing project partners the Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers Union (SACTWU), which has more than 100 000 members and covers over 180 000 workers, and the Western Cape Government.
In the factory setting, mothers say the issue is not spoken of, they’re afraid to raise the issue with managers for fear of losing their jobs, or simply do not know their rights. Managers either deny it’s a problem because women don’t speak about it, or do not know how to provide support.
In the corporate or university space, breastfeeding women are concerned about the implications for career growth and promotion.
“It comes down to the fact that workplaces have generally not been built for women and still have not transformed adequately to acknowledge the diverse workforce.”
“What will people think if I ask to be excused from a meeting to breastfeed or express milk? Am I less committed? What will my co-workers think? It comes down to the fact that workplaces have generally not being been built for women and still have not transformed adequately to acknowledge the diverse workforce,” Jaga said.
“Before we get to any crisis, which is where I think the level of malnutrition in the province is already heading, we need to create a language around the business and societal case for breastfeeding. We need to create awareness.”
What about UCT?
Within her own workspace Jaga has begun a conversation with UCT’s Organisational Health section to consider a breastfeeding at work policy and guidelines for supporting breastfeeding at work at the university – and to ramp up awareness.
“These small awareness shifts make a difference. One doesn’t have to implement high-cost, structural changes. 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.”
But once there is an awareness of the issue, something more is needed, she added.
“Think about the way we started to address HIV/AIDS in the workplace. It’s encouraging how much training and support there is now. But there isn’t anything for breastfeeding at work.”
Basically, all that is needed is a comfortable private space, fridge facilities for storing expressed breast milk, and somewhere to wash a breast pump, Jaga pointed out.
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