Australia’s Paid Parental Leave scheme improves mental health among women

But not all women experience the same benefits from Australia’s PPL scheme

Australia’s Paid Parental Leave scheme improves mental health among women

A major study into the introduction of Australia’s Paid Parental Leave (PPL) scheme has found it resulted in significant improvements in the mental health of new mothers. The research undertaken by the Macquarie University Centre for the Health Economy also identified better mental health outcomes for women whose partners were eligible for the Dads and Partner Pay (DAPP) scheme, indicating that both streams of support are critical in reducing the likelihood of depression.

Speaking to HRD, Dr Anam Bilgrami, a research fellow at Macquarie and author of the study, said encouraging greater take-up of the DAPP scheme among partners would be beneficial for new mothers in Australia.

“First off, we found that this introduction of the PPL scheme in 2011 reduced the likelihood of depression for women who were able to access it,” she said. “But then, two years after when the dad scheme was introduced we found even greater gains for women and among a wider range of measures.”

A 2017 study found the take-up of DAPP remained low after the scheme was introduced by Labor four years earlier. DAPP offers two weeks’ pay at minimum wage for dads or partners who earn less than $150,000 and work the eligible amount of hours. As of 2017, only around one in three of those who were eligible had utilised DAPP.

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Bilgrami said their research had identified significant benefits for mothers whose partners had accessed the scheme, with the support of another person allowing them time to rest, seek medical attention and alleviate maternal loneliness and stress. PPL-eligible women whose partners were also eligible for DAPP had an 18.5% decrease in depression likelihood.

“There’s been less focus on the importance of partner leave. The scheme in Australia currently has quite low take-up, possibly because of concerns about a career break and the fact it is paid at minimum wage,” Bilgrami said.

“It's something that employers and the government needs to encourage, and also possibly boost the government entitlement, to increase take-up.”

For women who accessed PPL, the likelihood of depression in women by 14%, but the mental health gains were not consistent for different socio-economic groups. Women who had employer-paid maternity allowance and access to PPL were able to combine both, taking up to six months off – the optimal duration as recommended by the WHO.

In contrast, women who did not have access to an employer-paid scheme or job protection showed no mental health improvements after accessing PPL. This indicates that women in jobs where there is no parental leave support in place, such as casual work or part-time roles, are suffering the most when it comes to their post-partum mental health. On average, they only took nine weeks of leave – below the 12-week minimum recommended by previous studies to reduce the likelihood of postnatal depression.

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Bilgrami said the findings show that currently, the support for this group is lacking. To make mental health support equitable for all mothers across Australia, the government should consider increasing the leave allowance under PPL and DAPP for those without employer-paid schemes.

She noted that some flexibility has been introduced into PPL after the study was concluded which could potentially bring about mental health benefits. For children born after July 1 2020, eligible parents can access 12 weeks of continuous leave and up to 30 Flexible Paid Parental Leave days, which can also be transferred to another person. Bilgrami said this addition, and the increase flexibility as a result of COVID-19, could see further improvements in mental health gains for women.

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