It’s no secret we are a pet crazy society. Not only have we racked up millions of views on YouTube videos of our furry friends, we’re now increasingly bringing them into the workplace. About 22%-25% of companies currently allow employees to bring pets, according to a survey by Banfield Pet Hospital, an increase from 20% of companies in 2008. We aren’t talking about only tech giants either. Many businesses of all sizes and in all industries have begun to welcome pets into the workplace. Dogs are the most common employee companions, but some workers may bring cats or smaller pets like hamsters.
There are various factors to consider before allowing employees to plunk a doggie bed down in the office. It may seem like an instinctual no-brainer to take Fido to work in an age where we have flexible business cultures, but let’s explore the intricacies of doing so.
Getting the Warm Fuzzies at Work
The positive emotional impact for pet owners in having their much-loved animals nearby is the leading argument in the case for pets at work. It also appears to be backed by science, although the number of studies is small: a study from the Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) showed that employees who brought pets to work reported lower stress levels during the day, higher levels of job satisfaction, and a better perception of their employer.
Various studies have also shown that animal therapy in general is effective for those with mental health needs and that pets can have a calming effect on many people. There is also evidence that spending time with a treasured pet can reduce blood pressure and lower stress. .
In addition, a few studies suggest pets are a social catalyst to connect people, leading to better human relationships as well. Animals and their spontaneity can break the ice and serve as a point of connection between colleagues. The argument then follows that better, more pleasant working relationships can yield increased creativity and collaboration. “A simple touch, a look of contentment, a break for a little playtime…all work toward a more laid-back atmosphere where creativity can flourish,” says Dick Grove, CEO of INK.
Beyond feeling good, if we’re arguing for pets in the workplace as a way to increase productivity, we might also say that pet-owning workers are more apt to stay late to meet an important deadline if pets are allowed because workers don’t have to run home and feed or walk their pets. Also, absenteeism might be reduced because employees are able to care for their pets’ needs at work rather than having to stay home; an example is administering medicine that has to be given three times during the day.
On the other hand, if we’re realistic about humans, pets can be a massive distraction at work. Most people are not automatons that will unplug, take Fluffy for a walk, and hop right back into work without missing a beat. Although pet owners would gain some exercise and fresh air to clear their heads, they may find it difficult to get back into the groove, thus working less efficiently. On an office-wide scale, it’s also likely that employees, both pet and non-pet owners, will be more than happy to talk about and play with pets, which could add up to less productivity over all.
It also may not be fair to the pets in question when their owner spends the day with them, but can’t give them the attention they desire. Obviously any policy would only accommodate patient and well-behaved pets, but many animals will naturally demand their reasonable share of interaction.
Allergies and Discomfort
The largest practical hurdle for a pet policy is allergies. Individuals with some form of pet allergy make up 15% to 30% of the total population, and some of these allergic reactions can be medically dangerous. Symptoms can range from itching or sneezing to full-blown panic attacks and severe respiratory disorders. In addition, while there are “hypoallergenic” breeds, there is no such thing as a truly non-allergenic dog or cat.
Pet policy articles often advocate making sure in advance there is no one with an allergy in the office, which is certainly a considerate practice. Yet who wants to be perceived as the one stick-in-the-mud in an office of non-allergic people? What if your allergy is merely uncomfortable and not medically risky? What if an important client with a severe allergy visits the office? What if you’re not allergic, but uncomfortable or fearful around pets?
In all of the above situations, being allergic or afraid can create tensions and strife in the workplace for those involved. Pets are near and dear to their owners’ hearts and a perceived slight against them can be taken very personally and emotionally, flying in the face of professional decorum. It may be hard for employees to speak up and say they are not comfortable with their colleagues’ pets around, even if it is impacting their work. There is little data out there about the impact of pets in the workplace on those who are not pet owners, and we don’t have documentation about the percentage of fearful people either. However, it is worth noting that in the oft-cited VCU study, the employees with the highest stress levels were those who left their pets at home, not non-pet owners.
On the legal side, the law clearly requires employers to allow for service dogs or other animals who aid with a documented disability. This is a clear-cut situation, but going beyond that stipulation and allowing non-service pets can bring some legal risks to keep in mind:
- An animal allergy can now be considered a legitimate disability according to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. If an employer fails to accommodate workers with animal allergies, they can be accused of discriminating against the disabled.
- Injury and damages are always a hazard with animals around. Even if pets are socialized and trained well, accidents and unpredictable events can and do happen. In addition, if you have a retail establishment and allow patrons to bring in pets, other customers may be able to sue you for vicarious liability in the event of an injury.
- The majority of corporate leases disallow pets on location. If your employees bring pets on premises, they may open you up to problems with your landlord.
The Bottom Line
If you’re exploring a pet policy, get crystal clear rules down in black and white that address these factors we’ve discussed. Make sure you’ve covered your bases with guidelines that are good for pets, employees, and the business. Definitely incorporate a zero-tolerance policy towards aggressive animals and contemplate implementing pet-free areas for those who may be uncomfortable. Consider sitting down with your employees and communicating your potential pet policy, giving them the chance to ask questions. Lastly, stock up on basic supplies like snacks, water bowls, kitty litter, and chew toys so pets can enjoy their time at the office!