The transition to parenthood can be stressful from many perspectives. Besides hormonal and physical changes associated with pregnancy and puerperium, and the challenges related to child-care, parenthood represents a major life event where parents not only struggle with the adoption of new roles but also face financial shortcomings and career uncertainties. This new context could pose further difficulties for parents already experiencing mental health problems and be a trigger for those without prior conditions. Protected time off work (parental leave) could thus mitigate and prevent mental health problems among parents by supporting them in this new phase of life.
In the study, Amy Heshmati, Helena Honkaniemi and Sol P. Juárez (Stockholm University) systematically evaluated the international scientific literature on the association between parental leave and parents’ mental health, considering different aspects of leave (paid vs. unpaid leave, duration of leave) and all possible mental health outcomes (from mild to severe conditions) in both mothers and fathers. Moreover, they considered the indirect effect of one parent using parental leave on their partner’s mental health.
The review confirms the beneficial effects of generous parental leave (for example, longer duration of leave) on mothers’ mental health. Moreover, the study findings imply that the protective effect of parental leave on mothers’ mental health can last long after the postpartum period. The results are less conclusive for fathers since there are fewer studies examining their health consequences. Still, evidence suggests that fathers could benefit from adequate wage replacement or other parental leave policy incentives.
Although the analysis concentrates on parents’ health, it is expected that healthy parents will contribute to a healthy family environment. Parents can use time off work to nurture and bond with their child. Breastfeeding, for example, is a protective factor for the child’s future health that requires the mother to spend time with the child.
Policymakers discussing the introduction or expansion of parental leave schemes should take the evidence of this review into consideration and view generous parental leave as a means to promote sustainable societies, with healthy parents also being healthy workers. In fact, in addition to designing generous parental leave schemes, promoting a healthy working culture is essential to facilitate the use of parental leave benefits.