Better World

New study shows the mental health benefits of generous paid family leave policies around the world

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Results from a new international study reinforce something that parents can already attest to — that generous family leave policies are linked to better mental health outcomes for parents.

The comprehensive review, conducted by a research team from Stockholm University and Karolinska Institute in Sweden, analyzed data from 45 previous studies on the benefits of parental leave around the world.

The researchers concluded that places with more generous parental leave policies saw fewer instances of mental health issues — such as depressive symptoms, psychological distress, and burnout — among new parents, especially mothers.

“An interesting finding is that the beneficial effects are not only observed shortly after childbirth, but that these protective effects of parental leave can continue into later life for mothers,” said Helena Honkaniemi, Ph.D., a public health researcher who co-authored the review, in a news release.

Findings among fathers were less conclusive since there was not as much data to draw from. However, the “research suggests that fathers have improved mental health with parental leave policies that offer adequate wage replacement or incentives, such as uptake quotas,” according to Dr. Honkaniemi.  

“Uptake quotas” — sometimes called “daddy quotas” — refer to policies that exist in places such as Sweden, Iceland, Japan, South Korea, and Quebec in which fathers and non-birthing parents are incentivized to take their entire paid parental leave package because it’s specifically meant for the father or non-birthing parent and can’t be transferred. This type of policy has significantly increased rates of fathers taking parental leave. In South Korea and Japan, fathers can use up to a year of paid paternity leave — and South Korean officials now want to extend the benefit for both parents to 18 months of leave in an effort to boost the country’s birth rate.

Where the United States stands on paid parental leave

The United States lags behind as the only industrialized country that doesn’t guarantee workers any paid parental leave or paid sick leave on the federal level, and many workers don’t qualify for unpaid leave either.

For the most part, employers are the ones deciding on the amount of paid parental leave to offer to workers. This lack of universal paid leave disproportionately affects low-wage workers, workers of color, and rural workers.

Twelve states have implemented state-wide paid parental leave policies for workers, since there is no federal policy in place. However, because of the work history requirements of those policies — meaning that workers need to have logged a certain number of hours, days, weeks, or earnings in the past year to qualify — an average of 36 percent of women aged 18 to 45 in those states were not eligible for their state’s parental leave policy in 2021.

Recently, U.S. military service members became eligible for 12 weeks of paid parental leave, whether they are the birthing parent or not. The 12 weeks of parental leave can be taken anytime during the first year after the child’s birth or adoption (except during deployment). This mirrors the paid family leave benefits already available to other U.S. federal workers.

Many members of Congress are currently working to make federal paid family leave a bigger priority for lawmakers. In one of the latest initiatives, the Congressional Dads Caucus, a group of 20 Democrats led by Representative Jimmy Gomez of California, have been wearing their babies on their chests and their parenthood on their sleeves while they work to bring attention to the urgent need for better family policies.

Joanna Eng is a staff writer and digital content specialist at ParentsTogether. She lives with her wife and two kids in New York, where she loves to hike, try new foods, and check out way too many books from the library.