Pet-ownership has soared during the pandemic. Figures published in August 2021 show that 59% of UK households own a pet, with dogs and cats the most popular, as ever. But attachment to our animals has also intensified. It’s a difficult bond for non-pet owners to understand, but many say that their pet means as much to them as their human friends and family.
Pets, like children, are a big reason why employees are reluctant to return to the office. Working from home requires no doggy day care, leaves no accidents to clear up when you get home, and provides ample time for walks with your faithful friend.
Employers who support pet-ownership will be more likely to retain staff and attract new talent, particularly among the many Millennials who have become ‘pet parents’ in the past 18 months. Pet-ownership is also proven to support health and wellbeing, which has been under strain like never before.
There is no statutory right for time off if a pet dies, though many argue there should be. It is therefore at the employer’s discretion to allow their staff leave, paid or otherwise. Attitudes vary as to whether this should be recognised as a workplace right, largely supported by those who have animals, but dismissed by those who don’t.
Clearly, the loss of a beloved pet has a significant impact, particularly in the first few days. Subject to clear conditions, pet-loving employers are adopting a pet bereavement policy that allows this very necessary time-off. At the very least, pet bereavement must be handled sensitively, with managers able to exercise their discretion in their support.
However, there is a danger when policies support one half of the workforce but are not understood by the other. This can lead to resentment, which can be damaging to morale and productivity. An alternative, fairer approach could be to allow all employees a certain number of ‘mental health’ or ‘life event’ days a year, which they can use in relation to their pets, but also for other emotionally-delicate situations.
There is currently no legal right for employees to bring their dog to the office – a feat I am yet to see a cat-owner attempt!
Again, this is a matter of policy for employers. But increasing numbers of companies allow it, subject to strict conditions. First and foremost, it must be agreed upon by all colleagues and assured not to be a counter-productive disruption to the working day.
Employers might consider pet-proofing the office space, ensuring there is a canine-friendly clause in the lease, a rota system if there is high demand, and designated dog-free zones.
This would be a day or two off to help a pet acclimatise to its new surroundings with the employee. Again, this could be rolled into a general entitlement to mental health and wellbeing days so non-pet-owners don’t feel they are losing out.
It’s not as snappy as picnics or happy hours at a dog park, but it is probably the most effective thing an employer can do to support pet ownership. Flexibility doesn’t mean working less hours. It can mean truncating core office hours, when people have to be at their desk, to allow them to more room at either end of the day. Employees might start later and finish later to avoid a crowded commute with their pet. Flexibility should not be limited to pet-owners, of course; it is another example of how empathetic employers are beneficial to all.
Employers should approach this as part of a broader volunteering programme, allowing staff to take time off to participate in opportunities that support the local community.
Millennials and Gen Z make up an increasing percentage of the workforce. They arrive with a very different outlook on what work means to them compared to their parents. Millennials are often referred to as the ‘giving generation,’ as they are more likely to be attracted to a company by its social impact and whether it encourages work-life balance.
Pet-loving employers, so long as they walk the walk, will be particularly attractive to these groups. They go beyond the basic rhetoric of workplace wellbeing to pro-actively encourage staff in work-life balance and pursuit of other interests, enabling them to lead fuller, more fulfilled lives. They recognise the whole person: that is, one man (or one woman) and their dog.
Susie Al-Qassab is a Partner and Head of the Employment Team at leading London law firm Hodge Jones & Allen Solicitors. She has over 10 years’ experience and has acted for many senior executives and businesses.
Susie is a regular contributor to Moneybox on Radio 4, demystifying the law and helping to hold rogue employers to account. She is also part of the HJA team providing pro bono advice clinic at Camden Citizens Advice Bureau.