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Do Pets Improve Workplace Mental Health? Paws-itively!

Leanna M.W. Lui, HBSc

Disclosures

August 19, 2021

You've heard of Google. Perhaps you've also heard of Googlers, the people who work at Google. But have you heard of Dooglers?

Pets have become an increasingly integral component of workplace culture. Google, which has been at the forefront of this movement, has gone so far as to call themselves a "dog company," from their Doogler group (employee dogs) to dog badges and merchandise, and even an official statement in their Code of Conduct:

"Google's affection for our canine friends is an integral facet of our corporate culture."

It has me wondering whether this policy should be adopted in more workplaces. After all, Google is not only a giant in the technology space, but it's also a trailblazer in transforming workplace corporate culture. 

As someone who follows a fair share of furry friends on social media, I've been seeing more and more workplaces allow their employees to bring their pets to work. While these sightings have been less prevalent with so many people working from home during the pandemic, the question begs whether pets in the workplace are associated with improved mental health. Notwithstanding, there are a few considerations that come to mind. Are they distractions? What about allergies? Are they tripping hazards?

Stress and Social Support

"It's not hard to feel happy when you just look at them. They're so friendly and fun to be around; that's why people have emotional support animals," said Urs Hölzle, a long-time Googler (software engineer). "It's a good thing to have friendly faces around the office who just want to be around you and are happy to be petted and get your attention." 

Previous studies have reported that pets may relieve stress. For example, a cross-sectional study (N = 681) in New Zealand found that pet ownership was associated with better mental health in comparison to those who did not own pets. Researchers found that pet ownership was associated with modifiable health behaviors such as exercise and companionship. A separate study evaluating cardiovascular health while conducting a stressful task in the presence of a spouse, friend, or pet found that pets were associated with significantly lower heart rate and blood pressure. The study also found that participants had fewer errors when performing the mental-arithmetic task in the presence of a pet. 

Specifically, in the workplace, two separate studies found that dogs have a positive impact on workplace well-being. Both studies found that employees who brought their dogs to work had significantly less stress vs employees without dogs and/or on days when they were not allowed to bring their dogs. However, benefits of a dog in the workplace may be dependent on a preexisting relationship or bond between the employee and pet. 

It seems that the literature has not yet reached a consensus, though. For example, a study evaluating heart rate and blood pressure among college students (N = 32) asked them to complete a series of mental-arithmetic tasks and the Thematic Apperception Test, and found no significant differences between the two groups. However, it's important to recognize that this study was not conducted in a workplace. Overall, there are several limitations of conducting pet workplace studies (eg, limited sample sizes, heterogeneity of stressful stimuli). Additional studies are needed to parse out the relationship.

Conversation Starters

Pets may improve and strengthen the social environment. Pets are often conversation starters between unfamiliar colleagues, as well as among those who are more familiar. On the flip side, pets may act as distractions which may interfere with work productivity — but this may subside over time as pets become the "norm" in the office. Other downsides of pets in the workplace may include tripping hazards, allergies and animal-borne diseases, noise pollution, and bites.

As an animal lover myself, pets in the workplace sounds like a treat. With giant companies such as Google endorsing this policy, it seems like a promising next step for workplaces. In a time like COVID when there has been an uptick in pet ownership and concerns about returning to the workplace, perhaps having pets at the office may smooth the transition to "normal life." At the same time, pets aren't for everyone and do present potential workplace hazards and distractions.

What About 'Lab' Dogs?

The role of pets, and more specifically dogs, in medical and laboratory settings is still unclear, even within the parameters of assistance dogs. For example, students and faculty members at university laboratories have often faced challenges bringing their dogs to work for service purposes. Institutional policies often act as a roadblock for individuals who require assistance dogs due to the lack of clarity in their guidelines.

When Joey Ramp, a University of Illinois alumna, tried to arrange for her service dog to accompany her to class and neuroscience research labs, she had to go through a series of discussions as the university did not have clear guidance.

"There is this roadblock where it's often just assumed that it would be too hard," states Jade Simon. Simon, who is a palaeobiology PhD student at the University of Toronto, requires an assistance dog to monitor her health status due to a connective-tissue disorder.

Understandably, laboratory settings can be tricky to navigate given the plethora of health and safety protocols; however, these dogs also play a critical role in the safety of their owners.

These concerns are not limited to laboratories but can also be extended to medical-related environments and practices — and not only within the parameters of service dogs but as emotional and well-being supports. There are multiple perspectives to consider such as that of the owner, colleagues, and patients.

What are your thoughts and/or experiences with dogs (and pets, at large) in the workplace?

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About Leanna Lui
Leanna M.W. Lui, HBSc, completed an HBSc global health specialist degree at the University of Toronto, where she is now an MSc candidate. Her interests include mood disorders, health economics, public health, and applications of artificial intelligence. In her spare time, she is a fencer with the University of Toronto Varsity Fencing team and the Canadian Fencing Federation.

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