Sydney Sweeney, an actress known for her roles in HBO’s White Lotus and Euphoria, recently made headlines because of an interview she gave to The Hollywood Reporter. In the interview, Sweeney expressed her worry about taking time off work one day to have kids: “If I don’t work, there is no money and no support for the kids I would have. If I want to take a six-month break, I don’t have the income to cover that.”
While some mocked Sweeney, who makes significantly more than the average American, for her comments, others lauded her for drawing attention to a real problem facing people across the country. Without support, many families—including those of well-paid actresses—simply can’t afford to take time off work to care for their newborns.
Understanding paid parental leave
Sweeney’s interview highlights a key issue in this country: the lack of mandated paid leave for parents. Currently, U.S. federal policies don’t require employers to offer paid parental leave, although 11 states currently offer paid family leave. This means the vast majority of new parents rely on their employer for paid parental leave. While paid leave policies at companies expanded during the pandemic, a recent SHRM survey found that many employers have rolled back these policies. Organizations offering paid maternity leave dropped from 55% in 2020 to 35% in 2022. Paid parental leave saw an even larger decrease, from 44% in 2020 to 27% in 2022.
For some leaders, these scaled-back paid parental leave policies make sense in a remote-first working environment. “The concept behind parental leave is that employees can be at home with their kids,” says Anthony Quint, CEO of Get on Stream. “But with remote working, they’re home anyway, which makes long parental leave unnecessary.”
However, other executives argue that paid parental leave is more important than ever. Even if parents work from home, they struggle to balance adequate childcare with the demands of their job. “Regardless if there's a pandemic or not, parents shouldn't have to choose between taking care of their family and earning a living,” says Linda Shaffer, Chief People and Operations Officer at Checkr. “We believe that paid parental leave is an important benefit that helps parents balance work and family life, and it's something we're committed to offering our employees.”
The benefits of paid parental leave
While companies debate the merits of paid parental leave, research findings firmly support the argument for offering paid parental leave to employees.
Physical health outcomes
Paid parental leave improves health outcomes for children. Researchers conservatively estimate that 12 weeks of paid parental leave would result in 600 fewer infant deaths per year in the United States. Similarly, California, which has mandated paid leave since 2004, also found a strong association between paid leave and reduced instances of ADHD, struggles with maintaining a healthy weight, and hearing-related problems among elementary school-aged children.
Leave policies provide similar benefits for parents. Studies show that paid parental leave policies lead to improved physical health for new mothers. And Rhode Island’s mandated paid leave policies led to parents reporting higher satisfaction with their ability to care for their new children and arrange child care, better health, and lower general stress.
Mental health outcomes
Beyond physical health, paid parental leave policies improve mental health among new parents. Research found that each week of paid parental leave (up to 12 weeks) reduces the odds of a new mother experiencing symptoms of postpartum depression, which leads to reduced burnout when they do return to work. These effects extend far beyond the postpartum period: studies show that women who received paid maternity leave were 16% less likely to show symptoms of depression at the age of 50.
Finally, paid parental leave helps companies retain employees. According to recent studies, new mothers who take paid parental leave are more likely to be working nine to 12 months after childbirth, compared with those who don’t take paid leave. And first-time mothers who take leave are more likely to return to work at the same employer.
“It’s hard enough to find and retain talent in this current job market—cutting back on any benefits would result in another round of turnovers,” says Dr. Michael Newman, CEO and Plastic Surgeon in Beverly Hills. “It’s about time we recognize paid parental leave as a basic benefit instead of something we can just dangle in front of employees when the job market is tight.”
How companies can best support working parents
When putting paid parental leave on the chopping block, companies risk losing employees and causing negative physical and mental health consequences. By supporting working parents with paid parental leave—and other family health benefits like Maven—employers can drive loyalty, reduce turnover, minimize burnout, and even see cost savings. After California rolled out its mandated paid parental leave policy, 87% of businesses in the state reported no increased costs and 9% indicated that the policy actually generated cost savings, due to reduced turnover among employees. The bottom line is that paid parental leave is good for employees and employers alike.
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