New Study Shows the Good and Bad of Breastfeeding at Work

Oct. 14, 2019

Faculty Research
Allison Gabriel

Turns out storing breastmilk in the communal fridge, cleaning a breast pump in the breakroom kitchen, and hoping a meeting ends before you begin to leak breastmilk is not always a breeze.

New research out of the Eller College of Management at the University of Arizona examines the good and bad of breastfeeding at work, seeking to understand how demands tied to breastfeeding may affect women’s work and breastfeeding goals. To do so, Allison Gabriel, associate professor of management and organizations at Eller, and her co-authors (Sabrina Volpone of the University of Colorado-Boulder, Eller doctoral student Rebecca MacGowan, Marcus Butts of Southern Methodist University, and Christina Moran of MarshBerry) conducted two studies—one study involved interviews with 38 women who breastfed and worked full-time, and a second study tracked 106 women who were working full-time and breastfeeding or pumping three times a day for 15 workdays.

Starting with challenges women experienced, Gabriel and her colleagues found that when women experienced breastfeeding at work to be unpleasant or uncomfortable, they felt worse emotionally. This resulted in them making less progress on goals tied to their work, and—critical to breastfeeding success—they also reported producing less breastmilk while pumping at work.

In other words, a mother who wishes to breastfeed or pump at work but can’t find a way to do so during a high-priority meeting or who has to do so in a storage room next to a mop may find herself ultimately less focused on both work and breastfeeding.

“Given the health benefits breastfeeding brings both mother and baby, these results do create some concern. Statistics show that women who return to work stop breastfeeding or pumping at a higher rate than women who do not come immediately back to work,” says Gabriel. “Our study helps show how this may unfold day-to-day: when professional and physical demands tied to breastfeeding conflict, there is a negative impact on women’s work and family goals, as well as their emotional well-being.”

Although this may sound negative, the results also show the bright side of breastfeeding at work: when women experienced success tied to breastfeeding at work, they not only reported feeling better each day, but also reported being more productive and producing more breastmilk.

“These results are important, because it helps show for the first time that when organizations help create conditions for women to pump without stress, they are helping them succeed at work and at home each day,” says Gabriel. “This means that framing time off to pump as a ‘break’ needs to stop. If coworkers support women and allow them to take time, the organization and the women themselves will be better for it. Organizations would be well-served to take action to reduce interference and stigma around female employees who are pumping or breastfeeding.”

The researchers also concluded that when companies invest in creating this type of environment, they may see healthcare costs decrease. Both women and their babies are healthier as a result of breastfeeding, meaning that overall expenditures may decrease.

“At the end of the day, our research suggests that supporting women’s breastfeeding efforts is not a burden—it is a way to help a large subset of the workforce thrive all around,” says Gabriel.

The study is forthcoming in Academy of Management Journal, a flagship management journal.