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Employees should have access to paid parental leave—no matter where they live

Mary Alice Vuicic, chief people officer, Thomson Reuters
Mary Alice Vuicic
Mary Alice Vuicic is chief people officer for Thomson Reuters.

For years, psychologists have uncovered mounting evidence that shows how beneficial paid parental leave is for the physical health, mental wellbeing and stability of families. This includes helping in small and sometimes significant ways to counteract common issues such as burnout and overstimulation of caretakers, postpartum depression, childhood obesity, sagging education scores and declining mental health. On this last point, evidence is suggesting that paid parental leave can be one of the biggest drivers of positive employee mental health.

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Research shows that 10%–20% of new parents experience mental health disorders in the post-partum period. However, birthing mothers who take paid time off after they give birth experience a 51% decrease in a risk of rehospitalization. And new evidence grows by the day illustrating the health benefits for the child from paid parental leave, in both the near- and long-terms, such as the development of healthy cognitive, behavioral and socioemotional skills.

While policymakers have made an effort to address this issue—President Biden’s Build Back Better Act, passed in November 2021, provided some level of support for Americans—many workers are still faced with the choice of taking unpaid leave or rushing back to the office. What’s more, legislation around the world varies wildly based on which country an employee resides in. As a global community, that variability can sometimes limit equal access to the types of benefits that have been proven to improve the health of employees and their families. It’s up to employers, led by HR, to recognize this opportunity to ensure employees everywhere have access to paid parental leave.

This affects non-birthing parents too

This is not an issue that impacts just the birthing parent. Let’s examine the parental experience of non-birthing partners. Research shows that children whose fathers who took at least two weeks of paternity leave when they were born report feeling closer to their fathers than those who took no leave. In fact, the same researchers also found that married couples who both took family leave after the birth of their children had a far lower likelihood of divorce. Similarly, new research into the effects of organizational support for the adoption process found that, when companies provide support for adoptive parents, there is a positive impact for both the employees and the organization.

Still, most non-birthing parents are back at their jobs almost immediately. While 9 in 10 fathers took some time off after the birth or adoption of their child, 70% of fathers take 10 or fewer days of leave. When it comes to LGBTQ parents being recognized for parental leave, only 20% live in states that will grant leave if they are in a relationship that is not legally recognized. Another 22% live in states where leave is granted, but only with marriage.

It’s not that non-birthing parents don’t want to take the leave. Instead, countless visible and invisible barriers exist—from traditional gender stereotypes and insufficient positive role modeling, to reduced benefits available to adoptive parents—tending to limit non-birthing parents’ willingness to take an extended leave. The ones who do take time off are often chastised for it, privately and even publicly. Former Major League Baseball second baseman Daniel Murphy received heavy scorn for taking just three days of leave from a 162-game season for the birth of his first child.

See also: 6 opportunities to make new parents feel more welcome back at work

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How can HR get this right—for the immediate and long-term health of children and their parents as well as the health of our employees?

Righting the wrong with paid parental leave

Through our Flex My Way program at Thomson Reuters, we evolved our existing parental leave benefit program so that all teammates around the world who are welcoming a new child into their family through birth or adoption will receive a minimum of 16 weeks of paid leave.

That was no easy task, considering the patchwork of local labor laws in all the countries in which we operate, but the stakes are too great and the benefits too powerful to sit by and wait for legislative change. We were determined to be the change we wanted to see. Not only do we stand to have happier, healthier teammates and children, but we give parents an easier entry back into the workforce.

The evidence is mounting. Paid parental leave has short- and long-term positive benefits for children, parents and companies. When companies and HR leaders support their people during significant life changes and life’s more vulnerable moments—such as the birth or adoption of a child—employees thrive.

That is good for business.