If we want to protect the health of women, government policies should require that both parents take maternity leave, says social epidemiologist Dr. Patricia O'Campo, director of the Centre for Research on Inner City Health of St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto, senior author of a new paper. 

The conclusion was based on a literature review that looked at the influence of public policies on women's overall health and found that parental leave policies tended to reduce the physical and mental stress levels in women who, historically, held the majority of the burden of childcare and household responsibilities, but that making both parents share leave means those duties would be shared also.

"By having government policies implemented that require both parents to share parental leave, responsibilities like household and childcare duties tended to be more equally distributed between parents,"
said O'Campo in a statement from St. Michael's Hospital.
 "This support had a positive impact on women's health in particular." 

Social epidemiologist Dr. Pat O'Campo. Credit: Courtesy of St. Michael's Hospital

Most countries have a parental leave policy but they differ in length and often both parents are not allowed to take the time off after the birth of a child. 

"Parental leave allows both parents to spend that quality time with their child without having to worry about who will pay the bills and whether each parent had a job to return to," said  O'Campo. 

The authors noted that some limitations existed when reviewing the effect of parental leave policies. This included the inability to find studies that analyzed the impact of parental leave on same-sex couples.

O'Campo said that it was important to implement government policies that enforce the promotion of equality between men and women in society because they tend to support women's overall well-being and health. According to the authors, women tend to suffer more than men from a host of non-fatal, disabling physical and mental illnesses and are generally expected to live few years in good health, despite having a higher life expectancy.

"Government policies should actually be good for everybody, not just women," said Dr. O'Campo.

They say the literature review also found that more research is needed to capture the full effect of public policies on both women's and men's health and that "we cannot fix social problems without thinking about individual behaviors and risk factors."

Citation: Carme Borrell, Laia Palència, Carles Muntaner, Marcelo Urquía, Davide Malmusi, and Patricia O'Campo, 'Influence of Macrosocial Policies on Women's Health and Gender Inequalities in Health', Epidemiol Rev (2014) 36 (1): 31-48 doi:10.1093/epirev/mxt002