Babies in the workplace
Would you take your newborn to the office with you? An Italian member of parliament did...
Ag, sweet! The pictures that accompanied this Daily Mail story of Italian MEP Licia Ronzulli with her sleeping baby at work, probably gave many women a little surge of hope: it is possible, after all, to be both a mother and a professional simultaneously!

But is it? The second sentence of the story says it all: ‘If Licia Ronzulli’s baby did wake up, she would prove something of a distraction to other members of the European Parliament.’ Not to mention to Licia herself.

And there’s the issue: anyone who’s parented a baby knows it’s a fulltime job, while at the same time it’s perfectly reasonable for employers to expect 100% input from someone whose salary they’re paying. Realistically, it just isn’t possible to do both simultaneously.

As British writer Zoe Williams puts it, ‘multitasking, schmultitasking’: ‘If you’re being asked to do your job and your childcare at the same time, the implication is that one of those things is not work… while it is possible to put on laundry with half an eye on a baby, it isn’t possible to undertake anything complex.’

Even enthusiastic proponents of the parenting-in-the-workplace movement admit that productivity is affected by on-site mothering. ‘We keep timesheets so we can monitor productivity, and we see that parents really don’t maintain the same productivity levels,’ says the CEO of an American communications firm that has a ‘Bring your Baby to Work’ programme for infants up to 6 months old, quoted in the New York Times. The company ‘solves’ this problem by paying 80% of an employee’s full salary when the child is in the office.

How does this work in South Africa?

In South Africa, there’s nothing in law that specifically prohibits a woman from taking her baby to work, according to a representative from LJ De Jager Attorneys.

‘However,’ she says, ‘there are obviously situations, such as if you work in a call centre or in an open-plan office, where a baby will be disruptive, and will negatively affect productivity. And because it’s inevitable that having a baby at work will distract the mother, that employee may then put herself at risk of a poor performance hearing.’

Another aspect to consider is that, with very few exceptions, workplaces are communal environments. Time magazine ran an article on this trend in January 2008 and got mixed reactions. Many, from co-workers, were negative. One, a mother of three, said that she thought child-care options at work were a good idea but that babies shouldn’t be allowed in open work spaces. ‘I think it’s totally inappropriate. Why should the person in the next cubicle be subjected to that distraction? It’s disrespectful.’

Williams notes these feelings of ‘simmering resentment’ among colleagues and additionally makes the point that non-parents are justifiably irked by the noise and smell that accompany small infants. ‘Really the only people who can put up with us are other parents, not even of older children, but of babies exactly the same age,’ she says.

Some of the bigger (and more forward-thinking) South African companies now offer on-site creche facilities, and these enable working women to maintain a close bond with their baby, to breastfeed during working hours, and not to lose out professionally (or financially) by being forced to take leave.

But if your company doesn’t offer these facilities, your best option is to familiarise yourself with the various terms and conditions of the Basic Conditions of Employment Act.

Pregnant women in South Africa are entitled to four months’ maternity leave, one month before their due date and three months after the baby is born; and, in fact, the law specifies that a mother may not return to work less than six weeks after childbirth unless approved by her doctor.

Also, where the employee has already given birth and is completely well, if her newborn baby is ill, she is entitled to get time off to look after her baby.

Would you take your baby to work?

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