Sarasota, FL (WorkersCompensation.com) – You may notice something different about the workplace during the next several Fridays: the presence of dogs and cats. The American Heart Association has launched Best Friend Fridays, to encourage employers to designate one or more Fridays in June as bring-your-pets-to-work days. The Friday following Fathers’ Day has been deemed ‘Take your Dog to Work Day’ by Pet Sitters International for the last 20 years.
Bringing your ‘best friend’ to the office isn’t necessarily a new concept. Companies such as Amazon, Google and Tito’s Handmade Vodka have had pet-friendly policies for some time. While not every workplace is well suited for animals and there are clearly risks involved, organizations that have planned and implemented appropriate strategies report significant benefits, including better engagement and retention of their employees.
Pets at Work
Reduced stress, lower blood pressure and better morale are just a few of the advantages pets can bring to the workforce. The benefits are reported not only among pet owners, but other workers too. The workplace environment as a whole seems to improve.
“At RIMS we bring in therapy dogs to show all the different ways that animals can be effective,” said Teresa Bartlett, M.D., SVP and Senior Medical Officer at Sedgwick. “We want to demonstrate that in this era where everybody wants a pill for something such as pain, and especially with opioids, sometimes just having a pet is such a comfort.”
Research on the effects of pets in the workplace is sparse, and what does exist is generally self-reported surveys by employers and employees. But clearly, there is a strong belief they can benefit humans.
“They are used in psychiatric hospitals, nursing homes, schools — it’s a very effective tool,” Bartlett said.
One of the ‘therapy dogs’ at last year’s RIMS’ conference had also worked in a children’s burn unit. “The dog would come within an inch of any [child’s] face. It knew it was near a burn victim so it couldn’t actually touch them,” Bartlett said. “It makes them feel so much happier.”
Beyond specially trained, the typical well-behaved house pet can improve the health and well-being of workers. Among the advantages mentioned in research are:
Social interaction among employees, which leads to better overall engagement by employees. “Anecdotal reports suggest that pets enhance the social atmosphere at work and research conducted outside of the workplace indicates that dogs can increase the frequency of conversations among people,” according to the study Dogs in the Workplace: A Review of the Benefits and Potential Challenges, published in PubMed Central.
An additional source of social support, meaning the “mechanism by which relationships with other people buffer individuals from stress,” according to the study. This has been shown to reduce depression.
Improved morale and productivity. Some studies have indicated that better work performance was evident when pets were around.
Lower rates of absenteeism
Increased cardiovascular reactivity.
Lower stress responses during high-stress situations.
Risks to Consider
Despite the many advantages to this free strategy, the decision of whether to allow pets in the workplace is complex and a variety of factors must be weighed. Among them are the health effects and/or emotional concerns of other employees, as well as legal issues and cultural sensitivities.
Allergies, slip-and-fall hazards, and fears or phobias are potential risks to workers. Concerns about excessive distractions are another. Cultural beliefs around pets, especially dogs, may affect a worker’s well-being. Dog bites are another risk to consider.
In deciding whether to allow pets in the workplace, the needs of all workers must be taken into account.
“It’s a very important aspect if employees want it,” Bartlett said. “The downside is that not everybody is an animal lover. It’s an opt-in; everybody has to agree to it or the employer can’t do it.”
Some employees might be reluctant to express their feelings about having pets on the premises, for fear of embarrassment or disappointing other employees. Anonymous surveys or focus groups are ways to gauge the comfort level of employees.
Organizations can have pets evaluated for non-aggressive temperaments, to mitigate the risks of dog bites. The American Kennel Club has a ‘Canine Good Citizen Test’ that requires a dog to perform various obedience tasks to see if he is well behaved and whether he shows any signs of aggression.
Finally, the needs of the animals must be addressed prior to allowing pets in the workplace. They must be comfortable in the environment.
Amazon, for example, has dog-sized water fountains, dog treats at reception desks, and waste-bag dispensers along pathways between buildings. While most companies might not go to those lengths, organizations should find ways to accommodate pets’ basic needs.
“You need to have some green space where they can run, like a dog park,” Bartlett said. “You need to have the ability to give them fresh water and space where they can sleep in [the worker’s] area.”
Organizations that find it is not feasible to allow pets in the office can still offer a pet-friend workplace. Pet-sitting services, allowing employees to work from home to care for sick pets, giving workers time off to care for their pets and offering pet insurance are other pet-friendly perks.