How Paid Maternity Leave Across the World Compares to the US

The United States doesn't legally require employers to provide paid maternity leave to their workers.1 This means a woman’s paid maternity leave is either an added employer benefit or taken out of her personal or sick leave bank instead. (Through the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), employers with 50 or more employees must provide 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave.)

Without federal mandates for paid maternity leave, small-business owners may struggle to find the best options for employee benefits packages. But the research shows that it might be in your best interest to offer parental leave.

According to our recent employee benefits survey, 30% of women say that paid maternity leave is the most important benefit offering. (In comparison, 28% of men say their most important benefit offering is paid paternity leave.) Despite these findings, more than 80 percent of US employees do not have paid parental leave.2

So how does the US compare to the rest of the world?

Using data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), we ranked each country according to its full-rate equivalent pay for maternity leave (the number of weeks of paid maternity leave multiplied by the payment rate in each country).

Length of paid maternity leave around the world

Europe has the best countries for paid maternity leave

Bulgaria stands out by far as the best place for maternity leave. Bulgaria’s maternity leave stretches to 58.6 weeks of maternity leave with a 90% pay rate. That’s equivalent to a whole year’s worth of mother-child time with full income, but without the stresses of work.

Greece’s maternity leave is the next closest at 21.7 weeks full-pay equivalent, with 43 weeks at a 49.5% pay rate. Poland comes in third with 20 weeks of paid maternity leave at a 100% pay rate.

Best countries for paid maternity leave

Rank
Country
Paid maternity leave (length in weeks)
Paid maternity leave (Average payment rate %)
Paid maternity leave full-rate equivalent (weeks)
1Bulgaria58.69052.7
2Greece4349.521.3
3Poland2010020
4Italy21.78017.4
5Hungary247016.8
6Netherlands1610016
6Spain1610016
8France1690.414.5
9Germany1410014
10Finland17.574.413
11Norway1394.212.2
12Mexico1210012
13United Kingdom3930.111.7
14Sweden12.977.610
15Belgium1563.79.6
16Denmark18539.5
17Japan14679.4
18Iceland1368.28.9
19New Zealand1846.88.4
20Switzerland1458.48.2
21Canada1649.98
22Australia1842.97.7
23Ireland2626.76.9
24United States

Those looking for a better work and life balance as a future parent might want to look into moving to Europe, where you can find 19 countries that offer 12.9 weeks of paid leave or more.

  • The minimum time for paid maternity leave for OECD countries is 12 weeks; the average time off across countries is roughly 20 weeks.
  • Mexico is the only OECD country that requires the minimum of 12 weeks, but Mexico also pays full rates for maternity leave.
  • Only 12 countries pay the full-rate equivalent of 12 weeks; the average maternity leave pay rate across OECD countries is 68%.
  • Only five countries pay full rate for maternity leave: Poland, Netherlands, Spain, Germany, and Mexico.
  • Six countries pay 50% or below the full rate for maternity leave: Canada, Greece, New Zealand, Australia, United Kingdom, Ireland, and the United States.

How maternity leave helps employees and employers

For employers, the increased financial and logistical stress of covering maternity leave may pose a high cost, but investing in paid parental leave helps businesses and their employees in the long run.

After childbirth, employees struggle to balance child care with work. Mothers also face potential postpartum depression, along with the regular (but high) stresses and expenses of raising a child.

According to the Society for Human Resource Management:3

  • Paid leave attracts and retains talent, and improves employee health, wellness, and engagement.
  • A little more than half of employers offer paid parental leave in the US (which leaves the other half of the working population uncovered); 35% provide paid extended family care leave.
  • Cost is the reason most employers don’t offer parental leave.
  • Nearly 30% of women without paid time off dropped out of the workforce within a year after giving birth, and 1 in 5 did not return for over a decade.
  • In US states with paid-leave policies, the number of female employees leaving the job after the first year of childbirth dropped by 20%. After 5 years, that number dropped by 50%.

While the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave in the US, the loss of income can be prohibitive for many.

Nearly 32% of US households live on a single income, and 41% live on dual income.4 And that doesn’t account for the non-working parents who struggle to balance child care and finances on inconsistent, dependent, or no incomes.

It’s unlikely we’ll see Bulgarian levels of mandated maternity leave in the US anytime soon.

However, with the recently passed Federal Employee Paid Leave Act (FEPLA) and the proposed FAMILY Act, we’re getting closer to freeing up American families from financial worry as they raise their children.

Methodology

Using data from the OECD Family Database, which includes 37 countries worldwide, we determined which countries were the best for paid maternity leave. 

To find which countries had the best maternity leave benefits, we ranked the number of equivalent weeks of full-rate pay. The full-rate equivalent is the number of weeks of maternity leave multiplied by the pay rate.

Sources

  1. OECD, “Family Database, PF2.1. Parental Leave Systems.” Accessed April 26, 2021.
  2. Miller, Stephen, CEBS, SHRM, “Paid Family Leave, on the Rise, Helps Women Stay in the Workforce,” January 15, 2020. Accessed April 26, 2021.
  3. SHRM, “New SHRM Research Shows Employers Offering Paid Leave Has Increased,” September 15, 2020. Accessed April 26, 2021.
  4. U.S Census Bureau, “Number of Earners in Family.” Accessed April 26, 2021.
Trevor Wheelwright
Written by
Trevor Wheelwright
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