The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.
-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia
Workplace flexibility policies—which allow employees to make more autonomous decisions about when and where to work, or whether to take a day off and how to time it—are on the rise. With two-working-parent homes increasingly prevalent, increasing workplace flexibility has in fact become a desirable trait for parents considering a job change. Many such policies have focused on maternal workplace flexibility or parental leave policies, but a new National Bureau of Economics Research paper examines a new policy out of Sweden to shed light on how paternal workplace flexibility may be beneficial to a family in a particularly vulnerable period: the months after they welcome a new baby.
Before 2012, Swedish parents were granted 16 months of paid leave after the birth of a child, which was split between the parents. There was, however, an important rule: Parents were not typically allowed to use their leave at the same time, with the exception of the ten days immediately after a birth. Typically, the Swedish mother would take most of the leave, and the father would take two months once the mother returned to work. This was supposed to promote a stronger father/child bond and also increase gender equality by requiring the father to do all the childcare tasks a mother typically does.
The “Double Days” reform of 2012 allowed parents to take an extra 30 days of leave at the same time during the first year of the child’s life. “Importantly,” write the authors of this NBER paper, “these ‘Double Days’ could be taken intermittently; thus, fathers were effectively granted more ﬂexibility to choose, on a day-to-day basis, whether to claim paid leave to stay home together with the mother and child.”
What effect, if any, does this new policy have on maternal health? The authors speculate that a father with such flexibility may provide benefits to the mother in several ways, including support while establishing breastfeeding, childcare during maternal healthcare visits, or alleviating maternal stress and loneliness. To examine the impact of father workplace flexibility, the researchers pore over a number of Swedish national data sets to find who used these leave days and when, and compared them to national health records.
The results are significant. First, the researchers emphasize that workplace concerns about fathers taking leave to “shirk from their jobs . . . are not supported by the data.” Fathers took only a few of the full 30 days of “alongside” leave allowed.
More importantly, the authors “present consistent evidence that fathers’ access to workplace ﬂexibility improves maternal postpartum health. We ﬁnd a 14 percent decrease in the likelihood of a mother having an inpatient or specialist outpatient visit for childbirth-related complications, and 11 and 26 percent reductions in the likelihoods of her getting any antibiotic and anti-anxiety prescription drugs, respectively, in the ﬁrst six months post-birth. Moreover, we show that the decline in anti-anxiety medications is especially pronounced in the ﬁrst three months after childbirth.” These effects are all greater for women with a pre-birth medical history. The researchers also discovered that the days when women visited a healthcare provider tended to be the days that fathers chose to take a leave day, indicating that the fathers used their extra leave to provide infant care so that mothers could pursue healthcare.
These findings, the researchers close, bear important implications for continued discussions of paid family leave. Workplace flexibility—allowing the family to choose when and how to use extra leave days—may be key in providing for better maternal health. The U.S. remains one of the only high-income countries in the world without a national paid family leave policy, and the authors suggest “the availability of such leave—which fathers could use to care for mothers in the immediate postpartum period—could have important and previously uncalculated beneﬁts for families.”
(Petra Persson and Maya Rossin-Slater, “When Dad Can Stay Home: Fathers’ Workplace Flexibility and Maternal Health,” NBER Working Paper 25902 , available at http://www.nber.org/papers/w25902.)