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Employment Today, HR Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Employment Today, HR Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Employment Today Magazine

Animal magic

Less stress, greater engagement, a positive culture and more smiles. Raewyn Court discovers pet-friendly workplaces can have a huge impact on the overall wellbeing of employees.

Rosie Wilson starts her workday at health and safety consultancy Impac by cruising around the office to check in with the team and occasionally stealing pies off their desks! Rosie is a five-year-old rehomed greyhound, a former racer adopted last year by Mark Wilson’s family from Greyhounds as Pets and now a full-time “couch monster” in Wellington.

Software development manager Wilson brings Rosie to work occasionally on a Friday, Impac’s casual day of the week, and says she really enjoys coming into the office. “She gets lots of attention and gets to explore new places and socialise with people until she wears herself out and goes to sleep under my desk,” he says.

The idea of bringing pets into the workplace isn’t new, but the practice is gaining in popularity as the benefits of reduced stress and increased productivity are being realised from both anecdotal evidence and findings in several international studies. Wilson says Rosie brings their small team together and gives them a talking point that isn’t about work. She also encourages them to take breaks they might otherwise not take on busy days.

“Everyone takes their micropause to pat Rosie, mainly because she puts her head in their lap while they’re typing!” Wilson says the team all agree Rosie is a good, positive distraction that relieves stress.

The Mental Health Foundation supports the idea of people bringing pets into workplaces. Chief executive Shaun Robinson says pets at work can have a calming effect on people and boost morale. “Taking five minutes out of your day to pat the office cat or walk your dog around the block can be a welcome mental break. It’s also an opportunity to re-energise by getting some exercise and fresh air,” he says.

“Studies have indicated that people who work in pet-friendly environments find their colleagues friendlier and more approachable. A positive work environment can have a huge impact on the overall wellbeing of employees.”

UK company New Economics Foundation’s 2008 Foresight Mental Capital and Wellbeing Project found that building five actions into day-to-day lives is important for mental wellbeing. The Five Ways to Wellbeing are connect, give, take notice, keep learning and be active, and Robinson says having pets in the workplace helps people build these five actions into their workday.

“Pets bring people together and help them to connect with one another—colleagues may chat about their pets or take them on walks together which helps them be active,” he says. “Having pets at work also gives employees the opportunity to learn about animal behaviours and take notice of how they interact with their surroundings.”

Pet food company Purina will hold its annual “Pets at Work Day” on 6 July. The company’s business executive officer, Jennifer Chappell, says the day was created because Purina’s core belief is that pets and people are better together, including in the workplace. “Bringing our own pets to work really highlights this for us, and we hope that more organisations will embrace pets at work, even if just for the day.”

According to a survey conducted by Purina in New Zealand last year, almost half of 1776 participants who worked in pet-friendly offices said the leading benefit was reduced stress. Other top benefits included people smiling more, enhanced employee engagement, motivation and likeability. Over 60 percent of employees agreed they liked their employers more when the employers allowed them to bring in their pets.

Chappell says at Purina they’ve noticed many benefits from having a pet-friendly workplace. “Pets help staff to relax, laugh more and get some fresh air during the day. Bringing a dog to work helps us get outside and take more walks, and bringing a cat gives us another excuse to play. Staff are smiling and socialising more, and the atmosphere is more relaxed. It helps us maintain a healthy work-life balance and we’ve found it is a nice perk for our staff, which helps with retention. We love coming to work every day with our furry friends and we wish more people could have the opportunity to experience it for themselves.”

Many New Zealand businesses are already on board, with Purina estimating that almost 500,000 Kiwis work at pet-friendly organisations, but for those still considering introducing pets at work, Chappell suggests a few guidelines to smooth the way.

“Decide which types of pets can come to work. At Purina, we allow dogs and cats, but other workplaces may allow fish, birds or other types of pets. You should establish a few ‘pet-free’ areas in your office such as bathrooms and food preparation areas. Find out about any pet allergies in the office and find ways to respect others’ comfort with pets, including rules for clean-ups, regular trips outdoors for dogs and places to put water bowls and litter boxes. Ensure the guidelines encourage responsible pet ownership, such as clean-up rules and providing healthy treats for people to feed to pets.”

Scot Marchant-Ludlow works at Purina as a pet care advisor and brings his dogs Diego, an Affenpinscher, and Pablo, a Griffon, to work most days. He provides a couple of cosy dog beds and a water bowl for Diego and Pablo, who love the attention of his colleagues.

On a typical day, Diego and Pablo have a short walk before coming into the office, eat a measured quantity of treats and then wander off to see who is in and say “hi” before returning and snuggling into their beds by Marchant-Ludlow’s desk.

“They spend the rest of the day alternating between snoozes and wandering. Pablo enjoys jumping up onto office chairs or lies on his back in the middle of the floor waiting for tummy rubs. Diego is a big fan of apple and carrot and has an uncanny ability to detect someone eating either, even when they are right on the other side of the office.”

Marchant-Ludlow says he always takes his scheduled breaks when Pablo and Diego are at work with him, but is not as good at doing so when they stay home. Being smaller and senior dogs, they don’t enjoy long or particularly vigorous walks, but he gets out every day for a half-hour stroll with them at lunchtime. He feels privileged to be able to share his work-time with his dogs.

“They’re always a nice conversation starter and many of my colleagues also enjoy being able to share hugs with them, and I’ve generally found that pet owners I’m speaking to on the phone respond well to us having dogs at work.”

Marchant-Ludlow says there are no real downsides to having Pablo and Diego at work, although both dogs can sometimes be a bit yappy when strangers come into the office. “And everyone in the office needs to be aware that Diego is very food-motivated so it’s not a good idea to leave out any bags containing food. Pablo also blotted his copybook early on by helping himself to someone’s chicken sushi that they’d left sitting on their desk. Thankfully he has not repeated this feat!”

In one of several international studies with similar results, researchers for the Virginia Commonwealth University in the US studied the stress levels of employees of a manufacturing company who brought their dogs to work. Three groups were measured—those who brought dogs to work, those who didn’t have dogs, and those who left their dogs at home.

Randolph Barker (yes, really), business professor at VCU and lead author on the study, had members of each group report their stress level at four different times during the day and found that the workers accompanied by their dogs reported the lowest amount of stress at all points in the workday. The most stressed-out group turned out to be dog owners who left their pets at home. Employees who brought their dogs to work reported higher levels of job satisfaction and had a more positive perception of their employer. Participants in the study also indicated increased productivity and co-worker co-operation, and higher morale.

Four years ago, Auckland recruitment company Frog Recruitment became aware of global research on the positive effects of animal companionship on workplace productivity, morale and factors impacting the success of an organisation.

“Initial research suggested it was part of the general ethos of allowing people to be themselves in work, which we liked the sound of,” says director Jane Kennelly. “We also discovered that a pooch on site can make a more comfortable, homely and inviting workspace. This sounded highly desirable to us, given the pressure so many work environments are under. And when we factored in our agency experiences in seeing the positive reactions from career seekers when they heard about work environments with a dog on-site, it got us thinking.”

“New Zealand’s Top Office Dog of the Year” competition was launched, and now dog owners from every spectrum of business enter their adored pooches into the annual competition, this year taking place during Mental Health Week—8 to 14 October.

The application process includes explaining the impact the dog has on the workplace. Kennelly says past winners, including Alfie in 2016 and Ruby in 2017, have had these clearly noted. Comments have included, “Big burly truckies lie on the floor to play with Ruby on their breaks,” and, “We found Alfie as a stray with a broken leg so the whole office clubbed together to get the money to pay for his operation. We couldn’t give him away because he touched our hearts so one of the team adopted him and he is a joy to have in the office every day.”

It seems apparent from comments received over the three years of the competition that having pets at work has a positive impact on almost every aspect of business and employee wellbeing. Kennelly says their doggie-friendly business community has confirmed numerous benefits, including a positive workplace culture, stronger contacts between workmates, reinforced organisational values, lower stress levels and positive mental health.

“And increased communication has in turn seen the promotion of a more cohesive, integrated and productive work environment, greater engagement, lower absenteeism and increased retention.”

RAEWYN COURT is an Auckland-based freelance journalist.

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