Low Workplace Flexibility Gives U.S. Parents a 'Happiness Penalty'

Low Workplace Flexibility Gives U.S. Parents a 'Happiness Penalty'
August 18, 2016 

Kids have a knack for bringing out smiles. From a healthy new baby to a sweet, hand-drawn birthday card, that first home run to receiving a diploma, kids give parents plenty of reasons to grin from ear to ear.

New research from Wake Forest University, the University of Texas and Baylor University, however, shows that in the United States, parents are on average less happy than non-parents. In fact, parents in the United States are 12 percent less happy than non-parents.

Father and BabyThe researchers examined survey data from 22 developed countries worldwide. The United States had the largest “happiness penalty” for parents among all of those countries

In some countries, such as Portugal and Hungary, parents are up to eight percent happier than non-parents in those countries. Robin Simon, professor of sociology at Wake Forest and co-author of the study, said there is a good reason why parents get happiness bonuses or penalties depending on what country they live in.

“Overall in the U.S. we do a terrible job at taking care of parents compared to other industrialized nations,” Simon said.

Specifically, she and her colleagues found that government and workplace policies that make raising children easier greatly contribute to the parent's happiness. Paid parental leave, low childcare costs, flexibility of work schedule and paid sick and vacation days guaranteed by law all contribute to making parents happier compared to non-parents. In countries like Norway, Hungary and Portugal, some, if not all of those benefits are guaranteed by law.

In the United States, the main benefit guaranteed by the government is the Family Medical Leave Act, which guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid leave for parents with new children or children with serious health conditions. Simon said while some companies are beginning to adopt these policies on a private level and some states are passing legislation to guarantee paid parental leave, but on the whole, parents in the United States bear a great deal of the burden for raising their children.

Mother and Baby

“It’s not that we have bad policies, we just don’t have policies,” she said.

When work and family life are balanced both time-wise and monetarily, both mothers and fathers see a boost in happiness. Time gave women a bigger happiness boost while lower childcare costs affected men more. Further, childcare subsidies did less to improve parent happiness than measures that allowed parents to better balance work and caring for their children.

Parents were not the only ones to see benefits from parent-friendly work and childcare costs policies. Guaranteed paid sick and vacation days and cheaper out-of-pocket childcare costs made everyone happier, not just the parents.

Simon said there are commonsense measures the federal government could enact to take some of the stress off of American parents, and is optimistic that there is a real desire to take better care of the parents.

“I would like to see federal legislation,” Simon said. “And I’m really hoping that with this presidential election that we will move toward that.”

If such policies were enacted, American parents could dial back the stress and get back to smiling.

 —Daniel Lane

Daniel Lane covers science, medicine, engineering and the environment in North Carolina.