It is well-known that 'animal assisted therapy' lowers blood pressure and reduces the risk of heart attacks. Less well known is medical literature showing it relieves pain in sick children, and improves outcomes with young people fighting leukaemia.
In fact, pet therapy is a little-known modern medical miracle. It has been used to help people living with mental health problems, victims of abuse, and to combat addiction. Hospitals in the US use it with veterans suffering PTSD, and some specialists there use pets to help children with learning difficulties. In the UK, pet therapy is growing in care homes and is helping elderly people with dementia.
So with 10 million working days lost last year in the UK due to stress-related illness, and as we celebrated National Dog Day last week, I'm asking: could pets in the workplace be the secret spark to boost lukewarm UK productivity in a competitive global market, and even set Britain up for life in a post-Brexit world?
If lessons from the US are to be believed, the answer could be a resounding 'yes'. Bringing your dog to work is becoming increasingly common practice there. Over 10,000 companies take part in the country's 'Take Your Dog to Work' day every June (we've also got Bring Your Dog to Work Day in the UK). Among the US companies that now allow employees to bring pets to work are household brands such as Google, Amazon, and Ben & Jerry's.
Why? Well, for one thing, having your dog at work means taking regular breaks to walk them, which reduces the health risks associated with sedentary office lifestyles (as highlighted in a major report recently published in The Lancet). Employees take fewer sick days, employers fork out less for sick pay, the economy saves money on healthcare costs.
An experiment at a North Carolina manufacturing company revealed marked differences in stress levels between workers who had dogs by their sides compared to their canine-free counterparts. It concluded happier employees work harder and are less likely to leave.
The League Against Cruel Sports has eight dogs accompanying their owners at their head office in Godalming, Surrey. In a recent survey, the organisation's staff were asked to give their verdict on whether they thought it was a good idea, and if so, why. Responses included:
- "Petting a dog provides a non-smoking smoking break, and smokers work that little bit harder to 'earn' their break.
- "As an employee with an Autism Spectrum Condition who is High Functioning, I find it very beneficial to have dogs for the purposes of time-outs and to stave off potential melt-downs."
- "Working in a busy office environment can be tough, and having dogs in the office can be a source of comfort and help to relax. It also gives staff a common ground, which can be good for team building and encouraging positive, constructive conversation"
Perhaps the most telling response was from a worker who said:
"Everyone I tell about the League's office dogs policy is extremely jealous!"
Jo Lister, an independent Human Resources consultant who lists the League among her clients, recently carried out a staff satisfaction survey here. She says the positive responses were much higher than those of most workplaces:
"I have come to realise, through my work with the League, that pets trigger positive workplace interactions that wouldn't normally take place. These help with well-being, confidence in communicating, team-work, knowledge-sharing, personal support and general happiness in the workplace."
Of course, bringing dogs to work won't be for everyone or for every workplace - laboratory scientists, surgeons, restaurant chefs and road workers are probably among those where it is unlikely to be practical. Moreover, workplaces that welcome pets need to ensure that allergies or fear of dogs are managed, as well as making sure pets are well-behaved.
However, if more employers allowed pets in the workplace, people will feel more able to adopt the large dogs currently languishing in rehoming centres, and also reduce 'doggy daycare' costs incurred by many workers - as well as the distraction of wondering if your lonely pooch is tearing up the house.
In human language, that's called a 'win-win'. In doggy speak, it's 'woof-woof' apparently.