Is a pets-at-work policy wellness' new best friend?News added by Benefits Pro on August 20, 2014

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By Scott Wooldridge

If you’re looking for ways to reduce stress and increase productivity at your workplace, the answer may be at your feet, or curled up on the couch, or chasing your kids around the yard.

Just as a dog or cat can bring energy, fun and companionship to a home, employers are finding that the workplace can also benefit from having pets around. A growing body of evidence suggests that pets in the office can have health benefits, improve morale, and even increase collaboration among workers. In some cases, pet owners may work longer hours if they don’t feel they have to rush home to let their dogs out at the end of the day.

“Pet presence may serve as a low-cost, wellness intervention readily available to many organizations,” says Randolph Barker, professor of management in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Business. Barker’s 2012 study of dogs in the workplace found that bringing pets to work resulted in a measurable decline in stress among workers over the course of a day. In the study, those who didn’t have pets in the workplace had an increase in stress as the day went on.

The science of a pet-friendly workplace

Barker’s study looked at a retail business in Greensboro, North Carolina, which had 20 to 30 dogs on the company’s premises each day. The business’ 450 workers completed surveys and had their saliva tested for signs of stress.

The study found that during the course of the workday, self-reported stress declined for employees with their dogs present and increased for non-pet owners and dog owners who did not bring their dogs to work. Stress rose significantly during the day when owners left their dogs at home compared to days they brought them to work. But overall, the presence of dogs had a beneficial effect.
“The employees as a whole had higher job satisfaction than industry norms,” the report found. Barker said that although the study was preliminary, it provided some markers on how pets can affect stress and job satisfaction. “Dogs in the workplace can make a positive difference,” he says.

Other studies have found that interaction with pets can lower blood pressure and improve a person’s mood. A recent study by Japanese researchers showed that levels of oxytocin, a hormone that can reduce stress and dampen depression, rose in people who interacted with dogs.

The best of both worlds

Ted Risdall, chairman and CEO of Risdall Public Relations in New Brighton, Minnesota, started bringing Bosco, his Wheaton Terrier, to work in the 80s. Over time, the practice spread to other workers and the agency has seen dogs, cats, fish — even frogs — take up part-time residence in its offices.

“A lot of folks don’t really want to leave their buddies behind at home all day,” Risdall says. “This provides a nice ability to bring your friend in a couple days a week and have them around your work area.”

Risdall’s company has developed a commonsense, informal pets-at-work policy that includes discussing any possible problems ahead of time and finding a consensus on what the guidelines should be. A couple of employees agreed to stop having their frogs at work when a new worker revealed a fear of frogs. In the end, the frogs left a bit of a legacy even after they jumped ship at Risdall.

“We were getting deliveries of live crickets to feed the frogs,” Risdall notes. “The crickets got loose, and it took probably a year-plus to stop the chirping.” At meetings, during lulls in the conversation, Risdall said, the participants would literally hear crickets.

“I would advise against getting shipments of live crickets to your workplace,” he says.

Insects aside, Risdall said the pet-friendly workplace experience has been a positive one for his company.

“It just brings people together,” he says. “There are extra smiles, laughter — just with a little stop and chat, every single day.”

The benefit isn’t only for pet owners, Risdall noted. Although he no longer has a dog, he says he still receives the benefits of interacting with animals, because he sees them at work. “It gives me an opportunity to take [a friend’s pet] for a walk,” he syas. “It’s the best of both worlds; I don’t have a pet but I still have the fun of having a pet during the day.”

Setting limits

Although Risdall’s company has done well with an informal policy, a written policy on pets at work is recommended by Deanne Katz, a lawyer who writes for Free Enterprise, the Findlaw small business law blog.

“If you let the dogs in without a clear liability policy you could be in a tough situation if the dog bites or makes a mess,” she wrote. “Lack of a clear policy also means it's harder to show if pets were kept out due to employee discrimination or bad behavior.”
Katz says a setting down with a legal expert to craft a formal policy is the best way for business owners to protect themselves from liability.

There are several things to consider, including allergies, cleaning up after pets and possible aggressive behavior.

“Only well-behaved pets that are comfortable and reliably safe around strangers should be allowed in the workplace,” wrote Hillary Collyer in the Virginia Employment Law Letter. Collyer noted that there have not been a lot of legal cases around animals in the workplace, and where cases have emerged, they often involve service animals.

“Employers should be mindful of the important distinction between service animals and pets — service animals enjoy special privileges under the law not afforded pets,” she noted.

Breaking the ice

One organization has come up with a way to allow businesses to try out pets in the workplace, even if only one day a year. The Take Your Dog to Work Day (TYDTWD) event, sponsored by Pet Sitters International (PSI), sets aside one day in June to celebrate pet ownership by bringing pets to work.

According to Beth Stultz, marketing and communications manager for PSI, there are no hard-and-fast numbers on how many companies are allowing employees to bring animals to work, but she says the TYDTWD has seen substantial growth since it began in 1999.

Stultz says guidelines to the once-a-year event have been established, including keeping pets on a leash or in an area blocked by an infant door; participants in Take Your Dog to Work Day should also have plans made in case the dog is uncomfortable in an unfamiliar setting.

But she adds that for most companies, the day has been enjoyable.

“We see businesses in various industries participate successfully,” Stultz says. “Although major corporations like Google, Ben & Jerry’s, Etsy and Amazon may be more well known for their dog-friendly policies, PSI hears from a variety of companies each year — from real estate firms and universities to banks and fine china distributors — interested in joining in the dogs-at-work trend, if only for TYDTW Day.”

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