Parental leave

Are tired working parents harming economy more than parents on paid parental leave?

Anna K. Stelling-Germani

Anna K. Stelling-Germani

“Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing” – Benjamin Franklin. Anna is a passionate scientist who obtained a PhD in the field of cancer research at the University of Zürich. She is currently working as a medical writer, inspired by her belief that scientific progress is only possible through proper communication. Anna has both German and Italian roots and has already lived in several European countries. She loves to travel the world, experience new cultures, laugh, and spend time with her little family.

Working efficiently after a night of interrupted sleep is difficult. In many countries, parental leave is kept very short and the main argument for this is that longer parental leave will result in economic loss due to a smaller workforce. In this article I challenge this argument and propose that tired parents who come to work with insufficient sleep might actually be causing more harm to a nation’s economy than a reduced workforce.

Constantly waking up to sooth a crying baby to sleep is a very common scenario for new parents. Parents can take turns and support each other, but if both are working (or as a single parent), the situation can be extremely challenging.
Most babies do not sleep through the entire night until at least 12 months of age (1), because they need time to adjust their circadian rhythm to sleeping through the night. The adjustments can come in phases, but some nights – and the following days – can be extremely difficult and demanding for the parents.

The average (and mostly well-paid) maternity leave in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries lasts 18 weeks, whereas the average for paternity leave is 1.7 weeks in the same countries. There are countries, such as the US, where there are still no federal laws that require companies to grant their employees parental leave. Though, even 18 weeks is much shorter than the average time required for babies to stop waking up during the night. For fathers, 1.7 weeks are especially disappointing considering the gender equality gap and that fathers should also be given more time to bond with their newborn children. Additionally, even when mothers take over most of the duties at night, the father’s sleep would still be disturbed since even after 1.7 weeks of life every newborn will wake up for regular feedings during the night.

Several studies have shown that paid parental leave is favorable for the economy, due to the willingness of parents to return to work, which in turn reduces a nation’s spending on public assistance (nicely summarized here from page 7 onwards). The studies, which have mostly been conducted on women, showed that paid parental leave provides financial stability, and that this is the reason why mothers are more likely to return to work (2,3). Increased labor force in a country ultimately leads to a better national economic performance. It has even been shown that paid maternity leave has a slight positive effect on work performances after the return (4). In summary, paid parental leave is favorable for economies as well as for individual companies.

Parental leave
Parental leave. Cartoon @ Emeline Barrea for Culturico (copyright).

Many countries still keep their maternity leaves rather short in order to prevent harming their economy, mostly motivated by the loss of workforce over extended periods of time. However, would the economy really suffer due to a longer paid parental leave, or is the loss larger when overly tired parents are working? Although this seems to be a difficult matter to investigate, a study published by the London School of Economics in 2017 suggests that tired parents returning to work are indeed causing economic loss. The authors argue that sleep deprivation has gained little attention in economy research until their study. It has been previously proven that lack of sleep significantly reduces cognitive and motor performance, which in turn reduces the economic performance of individuals (5). Their novel study was conducted on data collected from 14 000 British families over 25 years, measuring babies’ sleeping behaviors and correlating nightly awakenings to the parent’s employment performances. Performances were measured by several parameters, including their type of employment, the average number of hours worked, and overall household income. The results show that tiredness due to baby-induced sleep deprivation negatively affected the economic performance of parents as measured with the above-mentioned parameters. A core finding of the study suggests that the younger the child is, the more often mothers wake up, leading to less productivity and in turn lower household income for mothers with younger children. These results indicate that granting longer parental leave could be a first step to tackle the potential problem of economic loss due to baby-induced sleep deprivation.

There is obviously a struggle between our modern world expectations and the needs of parents and babies in their first year of life. Mothers and fathers often go back to work shortly after the child’s birth to maintain their career prospects, to keep up with our demanding society, and for financial security. The positive effects of a paid parental leave have been proven, but its optimal length is still a point of debate and research. There are several countries offering longer periods of paid parental leave, such as Sweden, Norway, Finland, Iceland or Germany. All the above-mentioned countries have flourishing economies, once more highlighting that a system with a longer parental leave does not necessarily harm the economy. I strongly believe that countries and companies are underestimating the negative effects of over-tiredness on the efficiency of new parents in the workplace, and that there is a need for a change in this regard.


Anna K. Stelling-Germani



  1. Goodlin-Jones BL. et al., “Night waking, sleep-wake organization, and self-soothing in the first year of life”, J Dev Behav Pediatr., 2001
  2. Joesch JM., “Paid Leave and the Timing of Women’s Employment Before and After Birth”., Journal of Marriage and the Family, 1997.
  3. Berger LM. and Waldfogel J., “Maternity Leave and the Employment of New Mothers in the United States”, Journal of Population Economics, 2004.
  4. Rossin-Slater M. et al., “The Effects of California’s Paid Family Leave Program on Mothers’ Leave-Taking and Subsequent Labor Market Outcomes”, NBER Working Papers 17715, National Bureau of Economic Research, 2011.
  5. Killgore WD, “Effects of sleep deprivation on cognition”, Progress in brain research, 2010
Received. 30.08.19, Ready: 07.11.19, Editors: FG, RG.

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