Spotlight on: staff with pets

If you are thinking of getting a pet, you know you will have to care for it throughout its lifetime. This includes taking time off work to settle it in, visits to the vet and other unforeseen pet mishaps.

Consider then that there are 12.5 million pet owners in the UK – potentially serious implications for business in terms of lost time and reduced productivity.

Insurance firm Petplan recently carried out a survey of its customers, and 35% admitted to taking time off work to either settle new pets into the home or care for their sick pets. Half of those owned up to taking a whole week off – potentially costing businesses up to £19m each year.

Peternity rights

‘Peternity leave’ is a growing phenomenon, according to Simon Wheeler, head of marketing for Petplan.

“This is an interesting new trend and another example of people having the same approach to pet ownership as child-rearing,” he says.

Some employers have even gone as far as introducing formal ‘peternity’ policies. In July 2006, delivery company The Courier Service did just that. Denise Fresco, who is responsible for HR, explains: “We have a staff of 19, five of whom have pets. We recognised there was a need to allow staff to take extra time off throughout the year to care for their pets when they become poorly.”

Fresco decided to award employees with two days compassionate leave per year, in addition to their contractual holiday entitlement, so employees could care for pets in emergencies while non-pet owners could use this time for other compassionate purposes.

She says: “We want to look after all the interests of our employees. By understanding the needs of employees with pets, it helps to retain staff loyalty. Unhappy staff mean an unhappy environment.”

Reducing stress

Professor Lynne Hill, director of clinical services at the Royal Veterinary College, believes that HR can help to reduce stress levels for pet owners by offering flexible working practices.

“HR specialists should realise that pets are very much like family members,” she says. “Pets can get sick – sometimes seriously – and need treatment. Happier employees are usually more dedicated and loyal in their roles, so more support helps boost productivity.”

She also advises that it is normal for a person to grieve after the loss of a pet, and an appreciation of this by the employer can help maintain employee engagement during a difficult period.

For instance, when Nadir Farrell, principal consultant at PR firm Communications Management, found out she would have to look after her dog after a major operation, she went to her manager and explained she would need to be at home for two weeks. Her manager introduced flexible working practices allowing Farrell to work from home.

Pets in practice

Professor and organisational psychologist Cary Cooper of Lancaster University Management School advises:

  • Use common sense and work out what is a reasonable amount of time employees can take off to look after their pet.

  • Be open to flexible working practices and learn to trust employees to win their loyalty. If you don’t, then your employees could lie to you and take days off ‘sick’.

  • Introduce compassionate leave days for pet owners and non-pet owners.

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