One study found that the top 12 ranking medical schools, as ranked by the National Institutes of Health and U.S. News & World Report, had a mean length of salary support during childbearing leave of 8.6 weeks. However, salary coverage varied widely and many policies provided only partial salary coverage. Most policies included constraints, like approval by department chair, or were available only to “primary caregivers.”
Constraints on using parental leave policies risks discrimination, and unfairly excludes parents who are not the child bearer and those who adopt. In some institutions, parents use sick leave or vacation, however, this can be problematic if that leave is needed for a medical complication or sick child or in cases where banked sick leave or vacation can be used as retirement benefits.
More than money
While I didn’t know it at the time, the presence of paid parental leave policies can have major implications for the mother and infant. Paid maternity leave is linked to improved maternal mental health, which is critical in promoting the well-being of infants. A Swedish study found that paid leave for partners decreased the use of anti-anxiety prescriptions by mothers by 26%.
Numerous studies also illustrate the benefits of paid parental leave for infants; for example an increase in paid leave from 6 to 12 weeks improved the duration of breastfeeding active duty mothers. In addition the health benefits, paid parental leave is essential in achieving gender equity; it may help lessen the gender pay gap, and increase the likelihood that women remain in the workforce.
Parental leave is not the only opportunity to support working parents. Organizations should consider allowing a graduated transition back to work, or time-limited part-time employment, particularly during the first year of life when most babies are still wwaking throughout the night. Other strategies, like flexible scheduling and extension of promotion tracks, may help improve work-life satisfaction and the well-being of physician mothers.
“Paid parental leave should not be a luxury, yet it is still lacking in many healthcare institutions, despite the mission of these organizations to promote the health and well-being of communities.”
In her book Unfinished Business, Anne-Marie Slaughter makes the case that businesses and society must transition to valuing caregivers through policy and culture. We can support parents in the workplace by facilitating conversations with men and women who are expecting children about how they plan to fit career and family together, including the division of home responsibilities and the potential for adjustments in work schedule.
It is also important to recognize that parents who decrease to a part-time or flexible schedule because for caregiving responsibilities are not less committed than those working full time and may have ambitions for career progression or leadership. Organizations ought to recognize the skills and experiences that caregivers acquire and welcome a period of “ramping back up” if or when he or she is ready.
Despite the evidence that paid parental leave benefits parents and infants, the United States is one of the few well-resourced countries with no national paid family leave policy. As pediatricians, we understand the value of parental presence in the early days of childhood, the impact of maternal mental health and breastfeeding on infant well-being. This expertise and our status compel us to be leaders on the journey to creating a better system of supporting caregivers.
I recognize that my challenges as a mother and physician exist in a space of privilege; as a white woman and a professional with a supportive partner, I benefit from resources to which other women do not have access. Paid parental leave should not be a luxury, yet it is still lacking in many healthcare institutions, despite the mission of these organizations to promote the health and well-being of communities. Equitable leave policies and flexible re-integration into work are important in creating a workplace culture where parents can thrive personally and professionally. Together, we can advocate at our local institutions and for a national paid parental leave policy for parents, that includes both genders and adoptive parents. In doing so, we will be promoting the health and well-being of physicians, women, babies, and families.
* The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and not necessarily those of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Sarah Webber MD, FAAP, is a member of the inaugural Women’s Wellness though Equity and Leadership Cohort. She is Director of Well-being at the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. She is a pediatrician who specializes in procedural sedation, an advocate and researcher of the science of physician well-being, and can be found on Twitter @SarahWebberMD.