MrPets

Pawternity leave. No, it’s not a misprint: it’s the latest suggestion as to how employers can help maximise employee satisfaction as staff slowly return to offices post-pandemic. 

Roger Wade, founder of pop-up food outlet chain Boxpark, held a social media poll after a staff member asked for time off to look after a new puppy: more than 60 per cent of respondents were less than thrilled at the prospect of colleagues being allowed time off to babysit their pet. “The employee has chosen to have a dog and then expects his employer to give away weeks of paid leave,” replied one. “It’s not your employer’s issue or responsibility. If you feel that burning desire to get a dog, change your circumstances.”

Wade solved the problem by allowing the employee to continue working from home for the time being. But the issue is not going to go away: since lockdown began, and 3.2 million Brits became new dog owners, fur baby culture is now taking over the workplace. According to The Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association, almost three-fifths of those new owners are aged between 16 and 34, the Generation Z and millennial demographic who are in the vanguard of falling birth rates. Many of those new owners are reluctant to have children for several reasons – expense, fear of the future, lifestyle and relationship choices – making pets a very obvious and deliberate child substitute. Indeed, 38 per cent described having a new pet as like having a new baby.

Pawternity leave was brought in pre-pandemic by brewing company BrewDog in response to employees “who still want to have a terrific home life,” according to Fiona Hunter, its head of employee engagement. “We could see it would make a tangible difference to the wellbeing of our team… in this modern age, that traditional family unit has changed so drastically that we have to think creatively about what family means to people. That traditional mum, dad, kids setup isn’t for everyone any more.”

For companies who had yet to institute such policies, however, coming back to the office after 18 months of home working has, for many managers, proven something of a shock: one – who asked to remain anonymous – says a member of his team requested to work from home when his partner was not around, “because [the dog] got depressed by itself.” He was given short shrift, and a dogsitter was duly booked – though even securing one was difficult, as so many workers in his area were evidently faced with the same problem.

Of the millions more dogs and cats in British households than there were 18 months ago, most have been used to having their owners around almost all the time. The pet insurance company Petplan says that five per cent of owners have been offered leave to help settle new animals; they, like babies, benefit hugely from being cared for properly in the early part of their life, and so the request for pawternity leave isn’t as ludicrous as it may first appear. A puppy left on its own for long hours is far more likely to develop behavioural problems as a result of separation anxiety, and these problems are far harder to reverse once established than they are to prevent in the first place. My family and I are on our third rescue greyhound, and each has arrived with certain behavioural ticks (timidity-related rather than destructive, thankfully) which never really go, no matter how much love we’ve shown them.

If pawternity benefits the puppy, it benefits the owner no less. For many in lockdown, pets were not so much optional extras as vital emotional support systems, providing much-needed physical touch and proximity in a time of extraordinary dislocation and isolation. Pet-related leave, which is also offered (perhaps less surprisingly) at retailer Pets at Home, can even extend to compassionate leave at the other end of the animal’s life. The death of a pet can be a wrench just as painful as the passing of a human loved one, as many will know: and if an employer will grant time off to deal with a relative’s death, why not a pet’s?

In blurring traditional lines between work and home, the pandemic has also helped focus attention on the balance and interplay between the two, forcing companies to work alongside the rhythms and changes of real, healthy lives. This makes commercial sense as much as anything: Timpson Group chief executive James Timpson says: “About 90 per cent of the time sales fall is because one of our colleagues has a problem. The problem is away from work, and it’s our job to try to help.”

In this post-pandemic world, employers are finding themselves under pressure to make workplaces as welcoming as possible, and increasingly this may involve provisions for bringing dogs to work. Kennel Club animal welfare expert Bill Lambert says: “If dogs can’t fit into their owner’s lifestyle post-pandemic, some will undoubtedly be left ‘home alone’ for too long, resulting in behavioural and welfare concerns, or even sadly rehomed or abandoned.” Last month, Dogs Trust recorded a 35 per cent increase in calls related to people giving up their dogs, due to their circumstances changing. It described a “looming crisis” afoot, with traffic to its ‘giving up your dog’ page up 180 per cent in July, when restrictions were lifted.

For the companies taking a more flexible approach to new owners, there is good news: dogs can actually make people more productive. A University of Lincoln survey carried out before the pandemic found that employees who took their dog to work reported 22 per cent higher job satisfaction and 33 per cent increased absorption in their work. Dogs can act as ice-breakers with colleagues and lead to increased communication: the very kind of soft personal information exchange which is so vital to a company’s operations, and which many fear will be lost by any permanent move to a more remote working culture. And employees who are stressed or upset may find that 10 minutes spent stroking a dog can help to restore their equilibrium.

But there are problems too. Not everybody likes dogs, and some workers may object to them on grounds of phobia, religion, hygiene or allergies. Too many dogs in a building at once risks causing excessive distraction, mess or even fights. Some breeds are by definition easier to imagine or accept in an office than others: docile types are far better fits than large, hyperactive ones. Even the companies that do encourage dogs at work ask that they be confined to certain areas of the workspace. And much depends on the terms of office use in a tenancy agreement: companies that own their premises are much more able to make far-reaching decisions than ones which have to negotiate with landlords.

The discussion about bringing pets into work revolves much more around dogs than cats, who are much more self-reliant and able to be left on their own for long periods. Research shows they have high inclinations toward dominance, impulsiveness and neuroticism; any cat allowed into an office will have by lunchtime mounted a boardroom coup, ousted the CEO, and dismissed half the workforce with immediate effect. With dogs in the office at least, the most likely fallout will be their taking too long a nap under the desk.


Do you think employers should take a more flexible approach to employees with pets? Let us know in the comments section below

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