Implementing breastfeeding support at factories in Viet Nam is helping a company reap myriad benefits

Dec 15 2022

Viewed from outside, the ofi nuts factory in Pleiku, Viet Nam, is unremarkable, like many factories: a collection of large warehouses sitting on about five hectares on the outskirts of a city.

ofi processing
Women processing walnuts at one of ofi's factories in Viet Nam. Roughly 85% of its factories' employees are women.

But inside, it bustles with activity during its hours of operation: 600 employees, most of them women, are processing cashew kernels from raw nuts; ultimately, the kernels wind up in trail mixes, snack bars and plant-based milks on shelves of stores across Europe, Australia and the United States.

The employees come from Pleiku, a city of about 200,000 people in central Viet Nam, and its environs. It is one of 11 factories that food and beverage ingredient specialist ofi operates to process nuts of various types in Viet Nam.

“We know that workforce nutrition has numerous and cascading benefits,” said Clara Tessler, ofi’s global Nutrition & Health Manager. “Increased productivity, less absenteeism, improved employer-employee relationships, and reduced illness are just a few of these. So, it’s a win-win to invest in workforce nutrition.”

That recognition led the company to assess its efforts to support workforce nutrition. The assessment looked at nutrition support the company provides to its workforce across four different areas, one of which was breastfeeding and maternal care.

“We thought this can lead to change that our female workers will benefit from and like,” added Kulhans Singhvi, ofi’s Pleiku cashew factory manager.

ofi workshop
During workshops, employees discussed breastfeeding with lactation specialists, who also provided one-on-one coaching.

Beyond improving employees’ well-being and satisfaction, the benefits of supporting breastfeeding in the workplace on breastfeeding outcomes is well established. Research shows that:

  • Female workers who have lactation breaks are nearly 62 times more likely to continue breastfeeding than those who do not;
  • Female workers who are supported and encouraged by their colleagues and/or supervisors are more than twice as likely to continue breastfeeding than those who do not; and
  • Female workers with access to a dedicated lactation room are more than twice as likely to continue breastfeeding than those who do not.

“We did a benchmarking of the nutrition support we provide at all our factories in Viet Nam,” Kulhans explained. The company then turned to Alive & Thrive as a partner to develop a workplace lactation support program for its employees.

“These support programs include one-on-one sessions with mothers, ongoing counseling, advisory information available online, and trainings with managers and with staff,” Tessler said. “We’ve also created breastfeeding rooms equipped with the necessary equipment for mothers to breastfeed or express. It has been amazing to see the uptake from our female employees.”

The program’s design grew from a baseline assessment conducted by ofi and Alive & Thrive at all ofi’s Viet Nam worksites to gain an understanding of female employees’ knowledge and attitudes towards breastfeeding, and to identify ways in which mothers who wish to breastfeed could be better supported in the workplace.

ofi home visit
ofi nuts' lactation support program included both in-person and online workshops for employees, allowing them to obtain support even when they were not physically at their work sites.

“The design of this program is based on the extensive experience of Alive & Thrive on policy advocacy and technical assistance on workplace lactation support in Viet Nam,” said Quyen Luu, private sector & civil society engagement program officer with Alive & Thrive East Asia Pacific. “We have updated and adapted effective tools and are using technology to monitor program implementation.”

The program seeks to provide female employees who wish to continue breastfeeding when returning to work the space, time and support they need to do so:

  • Space: On-site lactation rooms to provide a clean, private space for moms to express and store breastmilk, or breastfeed their babies.
  • Time: Sufficient lactation breaks to provide mothers the opportunity to express and store their breastmilk or take the necessary time to breastfeed their babies.
  • Support: Having a workplace culture that is supportive of breastfeeding to help mothers feel comfortable taking breaks to express breastmilk or breastfeed.

“Women can continue breastfeeding when they return to work, but they need the support of their employers and colleagues,” said Duong Vu, regional technical specialist with Alive & Thrive East Asia Pacific. “This program uses focused communication materials and tools to mobilize company leaders, managers, and infirmary staff to create a more family-friendly environment.”

ofi’s commitment to health and nutrition comes from the highest levels of its management.

“Improving nutrition is a critical part of food system transformation and implementing company-wide goals in our own workplace is one of the key levers for driving such improvements,” said Ashok Krishen Managing Director & CEO of ofi’s nuts product platform. “We are proud to be recognized as an industry leader in workforce nutrition, an honor that strengthens our commitment to improving year after year."

ofi lactation room
Lactation rooms, set up properly, provide employees privacy and a sanitary space to pump and/or breastfeed.

The program included support from a breastfeeding specialist who provided information and advice to employees in workshops and through coaching. In-person training workshops were accompanied by online workshops for employees who could not attend the in-person events – often because they were on maternity leave. A WhatsApp group was set up allowing employees to ask the specialist questions at any time.

“In my hometown, everyone simply has children and raises them without ever learning anything,” said Huy, an employee at a factory in Gia Lai, Viet Nam, that processes cashews. “Since I joined the coaching, I’ve learned a lot of new information and now feel more prepared to give birth to my first child.”

The training workshops provided new information about breastfeeding, employees said.

"The factory's baby-care coaching was so useful – it included a lot of information that I did not know or completely misunderstood before," said Ngo Thi Lien, an employee at one of the factories that processes walnuts. "I am going to do it right for my upcoming baby. The lactation room is available at the factory so when I return to work, I can express, store my milk, and bring it home to feed my baby instead of wasting it."

While a full impact study is planned in 2023, positive impacts are already notable, said Shajan Thomas, ofi’s sustainability manager in Viet Nam.

toolkit cover
A Workplace Lactation Support Program toolkit, developed with Alive & Thrive support, provides practical guidance to private sector stakeholders.

“For one, our retention rates have increased,” he said. “People can now re-join the company after maternity leave because we have a facility (to support breastfeeding) in the factory itself.”

The program’s success has broader implications for Viet Nam, which has a high rate of women participating in the labor force (72%) compared to other countries in the region (61%) and the world (50%). Programs like ofi’s can help increase exclusive and continued breastfeeding rates, leading to improved health and economic outcomes. According to the Cost of Not Breastfeeding tool, developed by Nutrition International and Alive & Thrive, about 1,000 child deaths and 1,500 mothers’ deaths result due to not breastfeeding according to recommendations, and the country’s economy loses more than $2 billion annually.

Recognition of impacts like that led to the formation of the Workforce Nutrition Alliance in 2019, a global initiative to ensure access to and knowledge about good nutrition, breastfeeding and nutrition-focused health checks. Alive & Thrive is a technical partner to the alliance.

“One in three people worldwide is malnourished,” said Mirjam Kneepkens, senior associate for workforce nutrition at the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, a co-founder of the Workforce Nutrition Alliance. “Every employer has to deal with those problems without even realizing it. It may not be very visible, but it does impact people’s productivity.”

The Workforce Nutrition Alliance’s scorecards, available free online and developed with support from Alive & Thrive, allowed ofi to begin to understand how well it was doing on four nutrition themes: healthy food at work, nutrition education, nutrition health checks and breastfeeding support.

Once companies have done the self-assessment, implementing programs is not a huge challenge, Kneepkens said.

“The most common challenge is finding the time to implement it, but it’s not rocket science and it’s not super expensive,” she said. “What really helps is CEO commitment, higher level management commitment. That commitment by leadership will give people leading it on the ground the mandates to implement programs.”

The company’s program is demonstrating the potential of engaging with private sector partners, said Roger Mathisen, Regional Director of Alive & Thrive East Asia Pacific.

“People spend a lot of time at work, and workplace environments can be modified to promote improved nutrition behaviors," added Mathisen. “The private sector plays an important role in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, and workforce health and nutrition interventions are an important part of the solution to end malnutrition and ensure a healthier future for all.” 

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