Some employers are catching on to the important role pets play in employees' lives. Angie Kenny finds out why it could pay for companies to be more understanding of cat ownership.Employers could do well to encourage their staff to have cats, considering?all the reported health benefits of pet ownership.Stroking a warm, purring cat is undoubtedly a relaxing experience, and relaxation can counterbalance the stressful effects of modern-day life, but it goes much deeper than that.?"Benefits [of pet ownership] include improving mood, reducing depression,?lowering blood pressure, cholesterol levels and the risk of heart attack," says Julia Dando, from the Society for Companion Animal Studies. "Pets have?been shown to motivate
Indeed, a study at the University of Minnessota of nearly 4,500 people found?that cat owners were 40 per cent less likely to suffer a fatal heart attack than people who didn't have a cat. "Other benefits include increased self-esteem and reduced loneliness, while also encouraging and enabling socialization," adds Julia. "Cats and other pets can provide a source of?social support and an unconditional acceptance and warmth."
Cats Protection also tell us that research they have commissioned over?the years proves that cats can banish winter blues, with cat owners suffering?60 per cent less headaches than non-cat owners and being 21 per cent less likely to catch a cold or flu. Cat owners also feel significantly less miserable, impatient and tense.
Pets at work
A further study carried out by a team of researchers at Virginia Commonwealth?University last year looked at the benefits of bringing pets to work.
Julia explains: "While it obviously isn't practical or beneficial to have everyone bringing their pets to work, findings from the study led the researchers to conclude that those who had access to pets at work showed lower levels of stress throughout the day, and had a higher level of job satisfaction and positive feelings toward the company."?
Furthermore, Karen Allen PhD, a medical researcher at the University of Buffalo, found that stockbrokers who owned a pet had lower blood pressure readings during stressful situations than those who didn't.
Karen also found that people had a lower stress response when they?performed a challenging task with their pets present. Of course we know it's less practical for people to take their cats to work than dogs, but some businesses do have cats on the premises - we've featured many of them in past issues of Your Cat magazine.
Lik + Neon, a London boutique that sells items by independent designers and illustrators, has four resident shop cats - Makita, Browser, Oskar and Bobby. Owner Janice Taylor says she loves the relaxed atmosphere the cats help to create, and says they make a big difference to customer relations.
"We have many city workers who pop in to pick up a card or two in their lunch?break, and will stay for a while longer to pet the cats - if they are awake!" enthuses Janice. "We also get to know our customers by having more time to?chat to them, and many return regularly because they like to visit our friendly felines. They enjoy the experience of having animals present while they shop; a brief respite from their concrete, glass and plastic offices no doubt!"
Work colleagues also seem to get on better with cats around, which in turn?creates a more productive work output, admits Janice. "Another advantage is that if you have cats in your workplace, you will be free from the annoyance of some very present little city creatures - mice and rats," she adds. "These guys are cute in their own way, but the wild London variety are not great to share a house, shop or work studio with."
As a cat lover you're probably well aware of all these benefits, but what?about employers? Just how easy do they make it for their staff to have pets? We're talking time off to settle new pets, for trips to the vets, or compassionate leave for a bereavement.
Time to grieve
The death of a cat can be deeply distressing. After all, the bond between?people and their pets is extremely strong and often seen as a similar type of 'attachment relationship' that exists between parents and children.?
"Every day in the news we see how people will go to extraordinary lengths?to care for their pets - even to the risk of their own health at times," says?Julia. "It is because of this strong bond that the effect of losing a pet can be so significant and traumatic for many people. Unfortunately, pet loss is rather disenfranchised in that many people, including employers, do not see it as a 'proper bereavement'.
"On the contrary, losing a pet can be devastating and is very much a real?grieving and bereavement experience. Many people describe the loss of a pet?as being more traumatic than the loss of a fellow human. Recognizing this can be a good move for employers - having a compassionate view and allowing time?off to grieve for a lost pet can foster a greater sense of commitment to the?company, where a discompassionate view might bring resentment. The important thing to remember is that grief affects people in very individual ways, and what one person experiences will not be the same as the next.
"Compassion and humility may not be seen as beneficial business attributes in general, but as studies are starting to show, it could be counter-productive?to ignore them. Increased productivity, motivation and commitment, along with?reduced stress, would have to be good reasons for an employer to consider how pets play an important part in the lives of their employees."
In a survey by pet insurer Petplan, almost all pet owners thought their pet was an important part of their family, 23 per cent took compassionate leave for the death of a pet, and almost half of all respondents had taken a day off work due to their pet being ill. Although they don't take it, 73 percent would appreciate compassionate leave to mourn the death of a pet, and 91 per cent felt that the distress of losing a pet is widely underestimated.?
A separate survey from Direct Line says British businesses are losing more?than £8.3 million a year as staff pull sickies to get over the death of their pets.?
One in four pet-bereaved Brits (23 percent) have been too upset to go into the office, but rather than admit it to their bosses, 12 per cent of those staying off work say they're sick. In addition, nearly half of pet owners surveyed (42 per cent) opted to use precious holiday time to grieve for a beloved pet, and 18 per cent felt like they couldn't tell their boss the real?reason for their absence from the office.
More than a third of bereaved owners who did not take time off (35 per cent)?admitted they had been upset and unproductive in the office. One in five (19 percent) said that they could not concentrate, with a similar proportion?revealing that they wanted to get home as quickly as possible.
Animal friendly perks
While there are businesses that allow their employees to take 'peternity' leave to look after sick pets or take them to the vets, they seem few and far between. Even fewer have official policies in place but say they are sympathetic in helping owners deal with any pet-related issues.
The Royal Bank of Scotland, for example, doesn't have policies in place regarding pets, but line managers are sympathetic and carefully consider the?specific circumstances of each situation. It may be possible for colleagues to take time off if suitable cover is organized, or flexible working hours could be agreed.
Over at Vet's Kitchen HQ, run by TV and practicing vet Joe Inglis, it's a very animal friendly company, and with all employees owning at least one?pet, it's definitely considered a large perk of the job.
Joe explains: "I'm all for employees having pets and, as a cat owner myself,?I understand that we need time off when something goes wrong. We also have?our own vet practice, and all employees get free routine treatment for their cats. Having employees with cats is also good for the business as we use them to trial all our new Vet's Kitchen recipes of dry cat food and treats!"
Employers who place more emphasis on pet leave policies include The Mayhew Animal Home. Fiona Cowan, head of human resources at the charity, explains: "We understand, perhaps more than most, just how important animals are and how devastating it can be to lose them. That is why we always offer compassionate leave and support to those who need it to address the sadness?they feel and how they will cope with the absence of their friend."
Mars Petcare's 'Peternity' policy also deserves celebrating. As part of the?policy, new pet owners can request up to ten hours peternity leave per calendar year; something network analyst Di Turner, who works in the Waltham on the Wolds national office, welcomed when she discovered a stray cat in her?shed last year.?
Di tells us: "The new policy came in just as I found Sophie [as she is now?called]. She was a young cat and, as she was so friendly and lovely, I assumed she had a home. I asked around and put up notices to try and find her owner, but no-one came forward.
"Then she had two kittens so we took them all in. It was so unexpected, but?the peternity leave meant I could go home at lunch to check on them and leave early for vet appointments. They all had cat flu so the appointments were?quite frequent! Ten hours isn't much time, but it's a wonderful gesture and a?great additional perk.
"It's a lot to leave new cats at home all day and nice to be able to pop home or leave early. I would have had to rely on friends or been forced to take the cats to the vets in the evening, but then I have children to pick up from school too; it's all a bit of a juggling act."
The family kept the kittens and Sophie. Di says: "They are adorable. We named the black and white boy Mittens and the tabby girl Rolyna. They love each other so much, and they have settled in really well with our older cat Pedro."
Peace of mind
Agria Pet Insurance, based in Aylesbury, Bucks, allows staff to take compassionate leave to deal with pet health issues, including time to take?them to a vet and time off when they pass away.
Emma Garvey, Agria's customer service manager, had to take peternity leave when her cat Squeaky developed idiopathic epilepsy, which required multiple visits to the vet, a referral to another vet for specialist treatment as?well as time to care for him - mostly during work hours.
Sadly, things didn't improve and Emma agreed the most humane thing to do was to have Squeaky put to sleep.
"During this time, work were brilliant," says Emma. "There were a number of occasions when he'd had a seizure in the morning or at lunchtime, and they didn't raise an eyebrow if I was ten minutes or so late while I cleaned?him up and calmed him down. They allowed me a half day to take him to the?referral centre, and I was able to take the day off work following him being put to sleep. The peace of mind was priceless; I couldn't have worked at a better place during this difficult time. They even paid £3,569.93 in treatment costs throughmy Agria insurance policy - scary!"?
Growing up with a cat can also be beneficial to children's school?attendance, says Dr Sandra McCune, human-animal interaction research manager at Mars Petcare. She explains: "There is evidence to suggest that childhood exposure to cats may decrease the likelihood of developing certain kinds of allergic reactions to them later in life.
"Having pets in the home has also?been linked to enhanced immune function in children, as evidenced by better school attendance rates due to fewer illness-related absences. This benefit to school attendance is thought to result from children in pet-owning households having their immune systems 'primed' by exposure to microbes from pets. Kittens and other pets also help socio-emotional development in children such as empathy and sharing." This bodes well for the future,?wouldn't you say?
The Pet Bereavement Support Service offered by Blue Cross is a FREE helpline?for people in need of support after the loss of a pet. Call 0800 096 6606 from 8.30am until 8.30pm any day of the year, or visit www.bluecross.org.uk Further information regarding the human-animal bond and pet bereavement can be found on the Society for Companion Animal Studies website at www.scas.org.uk