Returning to work post-COVID-19: Why Mother’s Rooms Must Be Separated From Wellness Rooms

States are beginning to loosen restrictions and we are all looking forward to getting back to “normal,” albeit with plenty of changes and precautions in place. Work & Mother has been saying it like a broken record since its inception, but hopefully now that the entire world is on high-alert it will begin to sink in: wellness rooms should be separate from mother’s rooms. Let me repeat, wellness rooms should be separate from mother’s rooms. And coronavirus is a prime example of why. 

Wellness rooms, though now commonly used as a catchall for anything requiring privacy, are particularly intended for those who are feeling unwell. Thus creating the potential, or dare I say strong likelihood, that usage of the room creates a germy environment. Studies have shown that the influenza virus can survive on surfaces and infect a person for 2 – 8 hours after being deposited on the surface. In the case of coronavirus, early research by scientists at the national institute of health suggests it could be detected up to three days on plastic and stainless steel. Yikes. That means the wellness room is likely the last place a mother should be preparing food for a newborn, particularly if her baby was a preemie or is otherwise immunocompromised. 

Best Practices for Wellness Rooms

Since nobody can anticipate a sudden illness or medical crisis, wellness rooms shouldn’t require booking on a shared calendar. While it’s important to have an “occupied” indicator, best practice is that wellness rooms shouldn’t lock from the inside, in case of a medical emergency, and employees should tell a coworker or manager to check up on them if they’re gone for a significant amount of time. As awful as it is to think about, what would happen if someone collapsed or had a seizure in a locked wellness room? This case illustrates that the best wellness room is actually the worst mother’s room. A mother’s room should be lockable, since a mother must alter or remove clothing in order to pump and needs a true sense of privacy. 

Germs in the Break Room

What’s more, is people often forget about the part of pumping that comes after they’re done: the cleaning, sanitizing and refrigeration. Most wellness rooms don’t have the proper pump part cleaning facilities, causing moms to carry their equipment to the company break room or kitchen. (There are plenty of other reasons, such as vulnerability and harassment, as to why we should not force women to parade across an office to the kitchen with her used pump parts, but that’s a whole other rabbit hole for a different day.)

What is most commonly the germiest item in the office? The faucet handles in the kitchen and break room.

Per NSF International, germs thrive in moist and warm environments, that’s why certain kitchen and break room items topped the list as hot beds for yeast, mold and bacteria. Between food prep debris and splashes from the sink, more than 32% of countertops tested harbored coliform bacteria. 

The cleanliness of break rooms and kitchens obviously varies from office to office depending on usage and cleaning policies, but when it comes to cleaning pump parts, you don’t want to risk picking up any extra germs. The younger the baby, the more important this can be. 

Tying it Back to the Bottom Line:

It is in an employer’s best interest to keep its workforce healthy. It’s estimated that U.S. employees miss up to 111 million workdays annually because of the flu. The result? An estimated $16.3 billion in lost earnings each year. But absences for sickness don’t just occur when an employee is sick, but also when employees’ children are sick. The good news is that breastfeeding employees miss work less often. Human milk boosts an infant’s immune system and helps protect the baby from common childhood illnesses and infections. For infants in childcare settings where they are exposed to a multitude of germs and viruses, human milk provides even greater protection. One-day absences to care for sick children occur more than twice as often for mothers of formula feeding infants. 

Providing a separate and appropriately clean pumping facility is in a company’s best interest now more than ever.