The Link Between Maternity Leave and Mental Health

Most countries around the world provide paid maternity leave—and some go as far as offering paid paternity leave. As for the United States? The country remains one of the only that doesn’t mandate paid maternity leave. That doesn’t only harm one’s bank account. Studies show it can also have an impact on mental health.

Harvard University’s School of Public Health discussed how paid maternity leave can help reduce work-life challenges in early adulthood and as a result, improve women’s mental health later in adulthood. In the report, the authors concluded that women with several months of maternity benefits with full wages were 16.2% less likely to be depressed than women without paid maternity leave. While they link data for women aged 50 years and older from various European countries, the principle of receiving better social benefits for maternity leave seems to have a protective value on mental health later in life. In the United States, women only have the Family Medical Leave Act of 1993, which offers job protection but unpaid leave for the birth of a child or other family reasons. In contrast, many European countries typically provide paid maternity leave benefits to working women.

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It’s not much of a surprise that women who don’t receive maternity leave benefits may be more prone to depression or other mental health issues. The period after childbirth is crucial for mother-baby bonding and can contribute to a mother’s well being much later in life. Knowing that you are able to financially and emotionally care for your baby produces personal satisfaction that lasts far longer than the few months after childbirth. Additionally, strong maternity leave helps mothers feel more stable and productive for both their families and their profession.

Along similar lines, there have been studies indicating the importance of protected group time for women in health care fields during the workweek. For nurses, physician assistants, physicians and other health care personnel who may be pregnant or are young working mothers, the work-life balance can be quite challenging. The profession requires long hours and often causes high stress.

In 2017, Women’s Health Issues Journal published an article about 40 health care personnel working at Mayo Clinic in Arizona between February and November 2015. They were given 12 weekly 1-hour sessions of a structured, relational supportive intervention called the Authentic Connections Group. Discussions revolved around topics like emotional connection, addressing anger or hurt, the concept of “good enough” mothering and shame versus self-compassion. Mothers in the group reported improvements in depression, self-compassion, feeling loved and parenting stress. They also showed significant reductions in the levels of cortisol (an objective marker for stress in the human body) both after the intervention and months later.

The article didn’t state whether these women had previously gone on maternity leave. Nonetheless, the benefits of the weekly group time may indicate the importance of giving new mothers a leave from work, even if it’s only for a brief amount of time.

Later in March, Long Island Pulse will delve into the topic of maternity leave in the United States a little further. How much do American policies differ from most of the world? 

dr. uruj kamal

dr. uruj kamal

Dr. Uruj Kamal is Chief Resident of Adult Outpatient Psychiatry at Baystate Medical Center-University of Massachusetts Medical School. A Stony Brook native, she enjoys combining her knowledge of mental health with healthy living. Dr. Kamal has a special interest in outpatient adult psychiatry.