One crucial way employers can support working mothers

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It’s been a decade since the Affordable Care Act mandated that employers provide new mothers with reasonable break times and dedicated spaces for breastfeeding. The workplace has evolved dramatically since then, and employees have become more vocal about what benefits they are expecting employers to provide.

With U.S. unemployment at a low of 3.6% and women now making up half the labor force, the war for talent has never been fiercer. Employers who offer more progressive benefits will have an advantage in drawing the best talent.

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When Christine Dansereau, a research knowledge manager at the architecture and design firm Perkins and Will, returned from her first maternity leave in 2016 she noticed that clients either lacked lactation rooms, or the space provided was insufficient to fulfilling employees’ needs. Even the provided space at her own employer wasn’t being utilized properly to meet the needs of the many new mothers at the firm. So she and some colleagues started to collaborate on how to provide employers with designs for high quality lactation spaces that included physical and sound privacy, comfort, convenience and hygiene.

Key components of these spaces include private rooms for pumping and an anteroom for community building. It also features a designated waiting area for when rooms are occupied, and open access to fridges for storing breast milk. The rooms have comfortable furnishings for work and relaxation, hygienic prep areas, microwaves for sanitizing equipment and a full-length mirror to adjust clothing.

These lactation rooms not only support mothers at work, but can help employers with retention goals. About 37% of breastfeeding moms will leave the workforce due to lack of support, according to data from the Business Group on Health.

When women are able to breastfeed for one additional month, it can result in $4,000 in reduced healthcare claims, according to Health Policy and Planning research. Additionally, employers will realize a return on investment of $3 for every $1 spent on lactation support, according to the American Journal of Health Promotion.

Dansereau in a recent interview discussed ways in which employers can provide suitable lactation spaces and other needed benefits specific to working moms.

Why should employers provide high quality lactation rooms for their workforce?
It’s twofold. You’d like to think it’s the employers just caring about their workforce and wanting to recruit and retain qualified women. But I think it’s also that new moms are becoming more savvy about what they should expect, and they are not willing to put up with pumping in a broom closet or a bathroom. As the standard rises it becomes more of a baseline expectation versus a perk or an amenity. This is something that is a requirement for employees. It’s all about recruiting retaining qualified women in the workplace. Women are having kids in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, so this isn’t just a young junior employee issue. Employees whose company provides breastfeeding support consistently report improved morale and greater satisfaction with their job. We should have a vested interest in supporting employees for both business continuity and culture building. As this becomes more of an expectation it becomes less of a strategy to bring people in the door and more of a realization that employers will be left out of you don’t do this.

What should employers know about your office lactation room, and how did you communicate that to staff?
There was a bit of a baby boom at that time so utilization of the space was challenging. What really came into play there was communication. We needed to set up communication protocols so that we were scheduling appropriately. We worked through it, but it did make me think about how an employer might improve that situation, and how you might flex your available space, because you don’t know if you’re going to have one person using it or 20 people using it. You can predict if you look at your workforce and see how many women there are.

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How did you come up with the design plans for lactation rooms?
Fast Company approached Perkins and Will and asked us if we’d envision what the ideal lactation room would look like. Two other designers and I sat down and thought about what would be on our wish list. So we each brought something to bear there and what we came up with was a space that addressed that utilization question. It had an anteroom. There was the single occupancy pumping space and also an adjacent room where employee moms could clean their pump parts and store their milk. It provides privacy and increases utilization, which is important.

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Voluntary benefits Maternity leave Employee benefits Employee engagement Employee productivity Employee retention Health and wellness