The day’s arrived. One of your best employees is returning from six month’s maternity leave; her husband is going to take advantage of shared parental leave.

You can’t wait. After your business grew too big for you to handle alone, you followed this advice and assembled a great crew of workers to assist you. This employee was one of your first recruits. She was incredible at her job and after five years working together you’d developed a brilliant employment relationship.

You were nervous when she began maternity leave. But nothing stays the same forever. You were genuinely happy for her and you knew you could make it work – she is such a talent, you couldn’t afford not to make it work.

You have a great chat, fill her in on the gossip and catch up on her news. Then she moves on to “practicalities”. She tells you she’s breastfeeding. That’s fine, of course; you’ve read about its benefits. In fact, you wonder why she is telling you; it doesn’t affect work, surely? Then she tells you she has to breastfeed at certain times of the day whilst at work – babies are hungry more often than adults. Now that raises a few concerns. You want what’s best for your employee and her baby, but also for the business.

You hadn’t thought about the practicalities before. Now you wonder how long the baby will feed for? How many times during the day? Will she be comfortable feeding at her desk, or will she want a more private space? How will the baby arrive at the office? Or will dad be waiting nearby?

You google the matter, and come across the linked article: “Government urges employers to make breastfeeding at work easier.” You completely agree, but it provides few details as to how to proceed in practice.

So here are a few pointers:

  • You are required to conduct a health and safety risk assessment with respect to breastfeeding mothers.
  • As Acas explains in this guidance, “there is no legal right to time off for breastfeeding or expressing milk and there is no legislation requiring employers to provide specific facilities where employees can express milk. However, the Health and Safety Executive's advice is that employers are legally required to provide somewhere for pregnant and breastfeeding employees to rest.”
  • As with most other issues, discussing requirements with the employee is a good start – parenting styles and babies’ behaviour vary. The subject may raise delicate issues and should be approached with care.
  • Remember that the situation will change over time and not last very long: the baby will require milk less often as time moves on. The mother may also decide to express instead of feeding directly, which has different requirements.
  • If the employee is treated less favourably than another because of breastfeeding, that is sex discrimination. If colleagues make jokes about her breastfeeding, that may amount to unlawful harassment.
  • Furthermore, if your policies relating to rest breaks indirectly result in breastfeeding being difficult, that may be indirect sex discrimination. If so, you would have to justify your policy. As Acas makes clear, if you properly consider a request relating to breastfeeding or expressing milk and you genuinely believe that the business cannot accommodate the required changes, you can decline the request.
  • During pregnancy and maternity leave, these protections are substantially stronger and there are additional rights.

Businesses take time to grow and require long term strategies to succeed. Building a great team and valuing your employees is an essential element of this strategy. If a working relationship is as great as described here, you owe it to you, to the business and to the employee to make it work.

If you require further advice on these issues, you may wish to join our community; on elXtr we have guides on discrimination and maternity rights.

If you want to find out more, give us a call on 0345 351 0025 and we can talk you through your options.

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