New research into heterosexual couples in Sweden shows that flexible policies that help new fathers find life-work compatibility also help new mothers stay healthy. The study, conducted by two researchers at Stanford University and detailed in a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper issued in May, provided evidence that mothers experience fewer physical postpartum health problems and enjoy better mental health when fathers can work flexibly after the birth of their child.
Sweden is known for its progressive social policies, and its parental leave practices are no exception. Until 2012, couples with newborns in Sweden could share up to 16 months of job-protected parental leave but couldn't take time off simultaneously, but the "Double Days" reform of 2012 eased that restriction, allowing couples to use their time off together for up to 30 days during their child's first year.
The researchers found that the implementation of Double Days not only increased workplace flexibility for fathers but resulted in a 14 percent drop in the number of mothers who had inpatient or specialist outpatient visits for childbirth-related complications and an 11 percent drop in their need for antibiotic prescription drugs in the first six months postpartum. As for these new mothers' mental health, Double Days also resulted in a 26 percent decrease in the use of anti-anxiety prescription drugs in the same six-month span.
"Our results suggest that mothers bear the burden from a lack of workplace flexibility—not only directly through greater career costs of family formation, as previously documented—but also indirectly, as fathers' inability to respond to domestic shocks exacerbates the maternal health costs of childbearing," the researchers write in the paper.
The professional services firm Ernst & Young recently reached similar conclusions after equalizing its parental leave program and gave new fathers 16 weeks of paid leave. That change also contributed to turnover rates becoming more equal between men and women within the organization. "Turnover for women 15 years ago was 15% higher than men's; the difference is now between 0–2%, which EY attributes at least in part to the leave program," HR Dive reports.
These findings underline the need for access to flexible work—access that is universal so that workers of every stripe can benefit, access that is need-agnostic so that workers can customize their workday without prejudice or resistance, and flexible itself so that workers can access different flex types as their lives and flex needs evolve.