Generous parental leave policies at work can do wonders for a new mom's mental health.
This is among the key messages from a new review of 45 studies examining how parental leave policies affect mom and dad's mental health and well-being.
Mothers working for companies with generous parental leave policies were less likely to experience symptoms of depression, poor mental health, psychological distress, burnout, or to require mental health care.
The more generous the policy, the greater and more long-lasting the benefits, the new Swedish study showed.
“Parental leave was protective against poorer maternal mental health including depressive symptoms, general mental health, psychological distress and burnout; however, improved mental health among mothers was associated with more generous parental leave policies [such as] those with longer length of leave or paid leave,” said study author Amy Heshmati. She is a doctoral student in the department of global public health at Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.
The findings on dads were less conclusive, but there haven't been as many studies done on the benefits of father's paid leave and mental health yet, she noted.
Almost all countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) — except the United States — provide new mothers with at least 14 weeks of paid leave around childbirth. New mothers can take up to nine months of paid maternity leave in the United Kingdom.
Paid leaves for new dads tend to be shorter, and Israel, New Zealand and the United States don't offer paid father-specific leave. President Joe Biden's Build Back Better Act initially aimed to provide all U.S. employees with four weeks of paid family leave, but this policy was cut from the plan when it was signed into law. U.S. workers are guaranteed only up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave without losing their jobs through the Family and Medical Leave Act.
“There is no one gold standard for parental leave, but many countries are making great efforts to improve their parental leave schemes through longer leave, greater wage replacement and initiatives to encourage more gender-equal sharing of leave,” Heshmati said.
The transition to parenthood is stressful. “Parents face challenges related to child-care, career uncertainties, and financial pressures due to reduced income, all of which influence mental health,” she noted.
While the new review focused solely on the mental health benefits of parental leave for moms and dads, these benefits could extend to the whole family.
“Mothers can use the time off from work to recover from pregnancy but also to nurture and bond with their child,” she said. "Breastfeeding is a well-known protective factor for the child's health, but this practice requires that the mother can spend time with the child."
The study was published in the January issue of The Lancet Public Health.
Calling the new research “a valuable and comprehensive study on an important issue,” Darby Saxbe agreed that more generous family leave policies benefit mothers' mental health. Saxbe is the director of clinical training in the department of psychology at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
The research on paid leaves for new fathers is more preliminary, but "when fathers take paid paternity leave, their partners show lower risk of stress and depression in the postpartum period,” said Saxbe.
Maternal depression and other mental health problems are very costly for society, she added.
“Depression is one of the primary causes of missed work and absenteeism, heightens the risk of many other chronic illnesses, and can also translate into less sensitive parenting, and greater risk of child abuse and neglect,” Saxbe said.
What's more, mental health problems can affect many other aspects of work and family life. “If more generous family leave policies can prevent or reduce mental health problems, they become a form of health care investment,” Saxbe concluded.
Emily Dickens is the chief of staff, head of public affairs and corporate secretary for the Society for Human Resource Management, based in Alexandria, Va. She said the United States needs to develop a flexible framework for parental leave policies, based on company size, industry and job description.
“This framework can give more people access to paid leave with government support,” said Dickens, who has no ties to the new study.
When developing policies, employers must know what is most important to their employees, she said.
“Some may value parental leave policies, others may look for an employer that will pay off student loans, and others may just want to be paid a higher base salary,” Dickens noted.
The American Psychological Association has more on the benefits of paid parental leave.
SOURCES: Amy Heshmati, doctoral student, department of global public health, Karolinska Institute, Stockholm, Sweden; Darby Saxbe, PhD, professor, director, clinical training, department of psychology, University of Southern California, Los Angeles; Emily Dickens, chief of staff, head, public affairs, corporate secretary, Society for Human Resource Management, Alexandria, Va.; The Lancet Public Health, Jan. 1, 2023