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Maternal Health: A Critical Call to Action (Anna Beth Gorman Commentary)

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Arkansas has the highest maternal mortality rate in the United States. While this statistic isn’t new, it came into my purview following the premiere of Every Mother Counts’ documentary, “Giving Birth in America: Arkansas,” last year. Since learning this unsettling statistic, I’ve grappled with a crucial question: Amid all the areas in which Arkansas could strive for excellence, shouldn’t caring for mothers and families be at the top?

High-quality, equitable maternal health care should be a fundamental right for women, and my role as CEO of the Women’s Foundation of Arkansas pushes me to consider this issue from a business and economic perspective. Maternal health before, during and after delivery has a ripple effect that impacts every facet of business operations, including the all-important bottom line. We must address the impact maternal health has on our business community to ensure the future of our state’s economy and workforce.  

An immediate opportunity is offering parental leave benefits, which significantly impact maternal health in the following ways:

► Enhanced Mental Health: Women with access to more generous parental leave exhibit reduced rates of depressive symptoms, psychological distress and burnout.

Sustainable Workforce: Women who take advantage of paid parental leave are 93% more likely to remain in the workforce a year after giving birth.

Improved Child Health Outcomes: Paid family leave is linked to a 12% reduction in post-neonatal mortality rates and a decreased risk of low birth weight and premature birth.

Lesser Risk of Re-hospitalization: Parental leave policies are associated with lower maternal and infant re-hospitalization, indicating better postnatal and postpartum health.

While we’ve made strides in the right direction — most recently when Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed Act 770 into law, extending the leave provision to eligible state employees from four to 12 consecutive weeks of paid maternity leave — there are still opportunities for change.

Consider this: What trends would we see if we were to evaluate the parental leave policies of the top companies listed in Arkansas Business’ 2023 Book of Lists? Would their policies reflect a business community that prioritizes its employees’ maternal health and long-term success, or would they instead show that they prioritize their short-term bottom line? 

Many employers perceive parental leave as a financial burden. But the absence of such support can increase stress and reduce job satisfaction, resulting in higher turnover rates. We all know the substantial costs of recruiting, hiring and training employees. Moreover, today’s workforce prioritizes work-life balance and family support; employers without parental leave may struggle to attract top talent. Despite initial costs, implementing parental leave policies is a strategic investment.

So to every business owner, executive and leader, if your company is not offering these essential benefits, you are putting lives at risk and jeopardizing the competitiveness of your company and our state. 

Arkansas is falling behind, but we don’t have to. Our business community must lead by example — extending parental leave benefits to our employees is not just a moral imperative but a clear-cut economic issue.

Anna Beth Gorman is CEO of the Women’s Foundation of Arkansas in Little Rock. Email her at abgorman@womensfoundationarkansas.org.
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