A link between paid maternity leave and mental health

Lisa Berkman Big 3

May 13, 2015 — Paid maternity leave following the birth of a first child appears to have positive benefits on women’s mental health later in life, according to a study published May 2015 in Social Science & Medicine of European women co-authored by Lisa Berkman, Thomas D. Cabot Professor of Public Policy and of Epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and director of the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies.

Q: How did you become interested in the connection between maternity leave and health?

We know that life expectancy for U.S. women has not kept pace with that of women in many European countries. This wasn’t true 30 or 50 years ago. We used to rank in the middle of these countries, but over time, our life expectancy has improved very little while life expectancy in the other OECD countries has overtaken us. Life expectancy for women in the U.S. now is 81 compared to 85 in France or 86 in Japan. We speculated that stresses associated with lack of social protection such as maternity leave when coupled with high labor force participation among women with children would lead to poorer health in American women. We wanted to know if having paid maternity leave would reduce work life challenges in early adulthood and, ultimately, make a difference in women’s mental health in later adulthood.

Q: Is trouble brewing down the road for older adults in the U.S.?

It occurred to us that the U.S. has the perfect storm for a shortened life expectancy for women. We have a large number of women working; over 70% of women with young children are in the labor force today. American women have more stable fertility rates and often have more children than women in many European countries, and many American women are missing paid maternity benefits. Since 1960, many European countries have adopted policies that provide paid maternity leave benefits to working women, while U.S. women have only the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, which provides employees with job protection and unpaid leave for the birth of a child and other family reasons. We hypothesized that the strains of being in the work force along with family responsibilities is stressful in the absence of social protection policies.

For our study, we looked at data on the work and family history and maternity benefits for women aged 50 years and older from 13 European countries who participated in the SHARE (Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe) study. We assessed whether having three months of paid maternity leave would impact later life mental health. We thought depression would be important to look at because there’s an increased burden of depression in old age. We hypothesized that the lack of paid maternity leave might have long term or “scarring” effect as people get older. While the analytic approach we used is complex, the bottom line is not—women with several months of maternity benefits with full wages were 16.2% less likely to be depressed than women without paid maternity leave.

Q: What are your thoughts on why women who don’t receive maternity leave benefits would be more prone to depression?

A period of leave shortly after birth may improve mother-child relationships, which may in turn improve maternal well-being in older age. Women with prior episodes of depression are more likely to experience divorce and marital difficulties. Maternity leave benefits may also influence employment and lifetime earnings, which may generate positive outcomes, including stable pensions and lead to better late-life mental health.

One can imagine that it must feel good for a mother to know that she is financially secure and can take time off and bond with a baby and have a job. The idea that this would have an impact 30 years later is amazing. As you’re raising children it’s not just the three months that are important; it’s setting in motion something that will last over the rest of your life, long after the maternity leave benefit has disappeared.

Learn more

Listen to a recent WBUR Here and Now interview with Prof. Berkman on workplace policies and health: Are American Workplace Policies Stuck In The 1950s?

 Marge Dwyer