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When Companies Support Pumping Breastmilk at Work, Everyone Benefits

Allison S. Gabriel & Sabrina D. Volpone & Rebecca L. MacGowan & Marcus M. Butts & Christina M. Moran


New parents returning to work face many daunting logistical hurdles. In addition to navigating the complexities surrounding daycare drop-off and pick-up and sick days, they’re also reengaging with their jobs after time away. Amidst these challenges there’s a pervasive one many women face that’s less openly discussed: pumping breastmilk while at work.

Since 2010, a U.S. law has required employers to provide women with the time and space to pump. And yet, stories abound of workplaces that make it difficult or impossible for women to do so. Women find themselves relegated to cars, supply closets, and bathrooms. Even at companies that supply dedicated lactation rooms, those spaces can be far away or occupied when needed. Aside from space considerations, women struggle to find the time to pump between back-to-back meetings.

While research has long found that breastmilk is healthy for babies, we still know very little about how pumping affects women who work full-time — and the companies that employ them. We recently sought to answer this question across two studies. Our findings indicate that there are benefits for women and companies when women are given the time and space to pump comfortably.

In the first study, we set out to understand the typical workday of breastfeeding women. We interviewed 38 full-time working women in the U.S. who were pumping at work. As we expected, women described the challenges they faced as pumping interfered with their work, and work interfered with their pumping. As one woman explained: “There are days that are busy like today. I have this meeting and a one o’clock dental appointment. I have to still pump around that. And then there are…a few Fridays when we have back-to-back meetings…on those days I haven’t even figured out how to [pump] other than just not doing it.”

But despite women reporting pumping at work as a daily demand, we were surprised to hear in our interviews that pumping at work can also be enriching. Past research has suggested that handling family-related demands at work is typically a source of stress. But some of the women we spoke with described how pumping at work made them feel accomplished and successful each day: “It was such an amazing thing that your body could provide for [the baby] that I just didn’t want to give it up because I was going back to work.” Another reported: “It’s been a ton of hard work, but 1000% worth it.”

Next, we wanted to learn more about the factors that contribute to the quality of these experiences — when they’d provoke women feeling negative or positively about their experience at work — and to better understand how they affect women’s productivity, both in terms of their work output and their breastmilk production. In our second study, we expanded our pool to 106 women and, using online surveys, asked them to report on their pumping at work for 15 workdays. We asked them to tell us whether they felt the pumping interfered with their work that day or whether it was successful and enriching, in addition to describing the quality of the space in which they pumped. We also asked them about their mood throughout the day (“discouraged,” “gloomy,” “content,” “relaxed,” and so on). Finally, we asked them about progress toward their work goals and breastfeeding goals (that is, how much breastmilk they produced at work), and how satisfied they were with their work-family balance each evening.

Our results showed that when women saw pumping as a source of interference in their work lives, they also tended to feel worse emotionally. Correspondingly they also made less progress on work goals for the day and produced less breastmilk while at work. But when women reported feeling enriched by pumping at work, these effects reversed — women’s emotional well-being increased, as did their output relative to work goals and breastmilk production goals. Furthermore, we found that there was no significant relationship between the amount of time women reported pumping and their productivity at work. These findings suggest that the time women devote to pumping doesn’t decrease their work productivity — when women feel good about pumping at work, it can actually increase it.

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