I’m a bit of a crazy dog lady. I’ve been known to cuddle strangers’ dogs, I don’t mind being covered in gob and the reason my iPhone is out of memory is the 1 234 almost identical photos I took of my dog because he’s ‘literally the cutest thing ever’. I’m that person reaching over the barbed wire fence, the one keeping your dog company while he waits for you outside the Spar and the one who’s late for work because it was my dog’s birthday and we had to wake up early to open presents (nope, not kidding).
Animals have a knack for bringing joy. Unconditional, unadulterated joy. So why limit that joy to after-hours and weekends? Before you roll your eyes and cite inappropriate ablutions and that one colleague in the office who sneezes like she’s got the plague, I’m not crazy for suggesting it. In fact, the two companies most companies aspire towards – Google and Amazon – allow employees to bring their pets to work, and they’re not the only ones. A 2017 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management found that 8% of respondents worked in pet-friendly offices. It’s not just the whim of fur-obsessed fanatics; animals in the workplace have real, scientifically proven benefits.
Perhaps the one employers will respond most to is their ability to ultimately affect the business’ bottom line.
Having pets in the workplace leads to employees taking less days off sick, according to a Blue Cross survey. Unhealthy employees result in high levels of absenteeism, which can have a severe impact on productivity and profit margins – the total impact on the American economy is as high as $1.3 trillion annually, according to a Milken Institute study. The benefits of cat or dog ownership are extensive: lower blood pressure, improved autonomic tone, diminished sympathetic responses to stress, and improved survival after an acute coronary syndrome4. Overall, your heart health will also be significantly improved, but that’s just the physical side of things.
Mentally, you’ll be happier and healthier too. Let’s be honest, these days you’ll be hard-pressed to find a job that is low stress. We live and work in high-pressure environments with a drive to be continually ‘on’, continually driving forward and outdoing our competitors. Job stress has escalated progressively over the years, and has been associated with increased rates of heart attack, hypertension and other disorders such as gastrointestinal upset and ulcers. In fact, to drive this point home, in New York, Los Angeles and other municipalities, the relationship between job stress and heart attacks is so well acknowledged, that any police officer who suffers a coronary event on or off the job is assumed to have a work-related injury and is compensated accordingly. At the risk of sounding like a canine-obsessed nut, dogs make it all better.
Studies have proven that just petting an animal lowers blood pressure, cholesterol and heart rate. Animal interaction has this amazing ability to change something in the way our bodies process stress – levels of cortisol, norepinephrine, epinephrine and serotonin, all of which are involved in mood regulation and the body’s response to stress, change in a positive way7. And with stats pointing to about one in every six South Africans suffering from mental disorders such as depression and anxiety, introducing animals in the workplace is one of the most cost-effective means of keeping employees healthy.
Nestlé, which began allowing its 1 000-plus employees to bring their dogs into its City Place headquarters daily about two and a half years ago, has seen great results. It’s not all willy-nilly dog silliness though, the company has a three-step ‘pawthorisation’ process: employees complete a detailed questionnaire about their dog’s habits, they undergo behavioural evaluations by an independent dog specialist and then join Nestlé’s PAW (Pets at Work) programme with their ‘passpawt’. And there are loads of dog-friendly areas – giant cushions, toys and treats and of course, Central Bark, the garden created especially for owners to take their pups for a walk. Dogs are kept on long leads, which are fastened to metal hoops on the floor by their owners’ desks.
It’s clear the employees love the programme. “The atmosphere in the office is warmer now and more sociable,” says Forbes, owner of Reggie, the beagle. “People will stop you in the corridors to stroke your dog, so you start talking to someone in a different part of the company who you’d never normally have spoken to, or have only encountered over email.” Gemma Gillingham, owner of Max, the labrador cross, agrees. “People will ask to come and see him, and find out where you sit,” she says. “You end up getting to know so many people in different parts of the business, which can be useful.”
With the concept of teamwork so integral to so many business functions, it’s interesting to note that one study9 involving animals in the workplace showed that employees exhibited increased levels of mutual trust, intimacy and team bonding. They foster a greater sense of cohesion and team spirit, and a lively work environment is likely to spark motivation and lighten spirits, meaning workers perform better. This benefits both the company providing the workspace and the employees.
Apart from this, workplace benefits rather than money, are gaining increasing importance for the millennial workforce. And if you don’t think it’s a burning issue for you, think again. Unless you have plans to close up shop in the near future, attracting and retaining top millennial talent is important for today’s business leaders. Millennials are 35% of the workforce. By 2020 they’ll be 46% of the working population10. They want a workplace that is enticing, forward-thinking and flexible, and they’re willing to take a lower salary in favour of these. As one of them, I know I am.
While I have seen the occasional inappropriate poop (neatly laid on top of the big boss’ desk on a day when he was particularly tense), having worked in a pet-friendly environment, I can definitively say I was a happier, healthier, more productive employee. It’s not the apple keeping people healthy, it’s those big, gobby dog kisses.