Public health-focused universities come up short on paid parental leave policy

New study by researchers at Baylor College of Medicine sheds light on how public health-focused higher ed institutions have some work to do with their maternity and paternity benefits.

Research on paid parental leave and its benefits for health and family is becoming popular. The American Public Health Association (APHA) recommends providing at least 14 weeks of paid maternity leave, for example. But many higher ed institutions—including public health-focused ones—are not putting such recommendations into practice, according to a new study by researchers at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

“Public health institutions historically have been vocal proponents for the health benefits of breastfeeding and family leave. However, our study shows that not all are ‘walking the walk’ in enacting policies within their own institutions,” says Stephanie Morain, assistant professor in the Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy at Baylor and co-author of the study, which was published in the American Journal of Public Health.

For birth mothers on staff, 80% of the 25 public health institutions studied provided paid childbearing leave for an average of 8.2 weeks, and 48% provided paid childbearing leave for an average of five weeks.

“There is a feeling of cognitive dissonance for those advising public health policies, especially related to breastfeeding, when the individuals themselves can’t comply due to the restraints they face,” says Morain. “It creates an even higher level of stress on faculty and staff with new families.”

Shorter leave times are associated with numerous adverse health effects, including falling short of the recommended six months (or more) of breastfeeding, lower rates of childhood immunizations, and higher rates of child mortality and maternal depression, according to APHA.

Offering more consistent and longer paid family leave policies is only one factor in achieving gender balance on campus. “The next step is seeing how much parental leave is taken, and [encouraging] the idea that it is acceptable to take it,” says Morain. Campus culture, she adds, typically respects time off for research, but not for starting a family. 

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