Regulatory and compliance

Pets in the UK workplace: should every dog have its day?

Published on 30th Jan 2024

Pets in offices might help with January blues, but what are the risks for employers to consider?

Above view of people in a meeting sitting around a table

The UK has earned a reputation for being a nation of dog lovers and there are now around 13 million dogs living in households across the UK. The Dog's Trust claims numerous health and wellbeing benefits to having a dog, including a sense of support and companionship, increased physical activity and protecting mental health.

The HSE's "Strategy 2022 – 2032 for Protecting People and Places" identifies the reduction of work-related ill health, with a specific focus on mental health and stress, as a priority. In this context, employers are ever more mindful of wellbeing benefits. Allowing dogs in the office is an increasingly common workplace benefit, particularly since hybrid working has become the norm in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic (during which dog ownership increased by 44% in the UK).

So can pets in the office be considered an effective wellbeing benefit?

Paws-itive effects

Pets in the workplace are associated with a number of beneficial effects on wellbeing, including:

Reduced stress

Studies suggest that those who allow pets (not just dogs) into their office or workspace have the lowest employee stress levels, while those without pets have the highest. Interacting with office pets has been shown to decrease cortisol levels (the chemical that increases blood pressure and causes stress) as well as lower cholesterol levels. US researchers from Virginia Commonwealth University found that employees with access to dogs became less stressed as the day progressed than those without access.

The researchers suggested access to dogs boosted morale and increased job satisfaction, whether people had access to their own pets or other people’s. And if four-legged friends pose too many challenges for your office environment, fish have equally powerful stress-reducing skills. Watching an aquarium can reduce muscle tension and lower pulse rates, leaving people feeling a little bit calmer. 

More breaks and exercise

Pets may provide an increased opportunity for employees to take regular breaks and exercise. Physical movement and getting outside are scientifically proven to help encourage greater team creativity and productivity in the workplace. A recent Leeds Metropolitan University study found that employees who exercised during their workday were more productive and motivated to tackle work tasks.

Fewer sick days

Perhaps a slightly lesser-known physical benefit of having pets in the workplace environment is that they can help to minimise the number of sick days staff take as a result of physical and mental ailments. 17.1 million working days are lost every year in the UK due to work-related stress, anxiety and depression.

Studies have shown that pet ownership and regular pet interaction can aid in the development and strengthening of the human immune system. In a 10-month study in which 71 adults were given a dog or cat, the results showed a significant reduction in minor health problems such as common cold and flu, headaches, hay fever and even indigestion for the first month of the ownership.

Are pet policies barking up the wrong tree?

Office pets may not always be the most sensible solution to workplace morale issues. Despite the many potential health benefits of allowing dogs in the workplace, certain aspects could also prove to be detrimental to employees' health, or unworkable for more practical reasons.

Section 2(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 imposes a duty on employers to provide a safe working environment, and the needs of all employees should be carefully considered when implementing a pet-friendly policy. Considerations include:

Allergies and phobias

In the UK, more than 5.4 million people suffer from asthma. 40% of sufferers are also sensitised to dog allergens. In a scenario when an employee allergic to dogs comes into contact with an office pet, they could suffer from rashes, panic attacks and in extreme cases severe respiratory disorders.

In addition to animal allergies, some employees may have a phobia of animals. Many other people would not find a dog in their workplace a calming presence. Instead, a dog or cat may become a source of stress and could severely affect productivity.

Dog allergies and animal phobias need to be carefully considered. Failing to consider employees' allergies or phobias would likely leave an employer exposed to potential liability for any distress caused as a result of their pet-friendly policy.

Risk assessment

Section 3 of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 requires employers to undertake a suitable and sufficient assessment of health and safety risks in the workplace.

If businesses are developing a pet-friendly policy, they will need to consider general health and safety hazards that pets in the office might pose, including: trip hazards, noise, mess and property damage. They will also need to include pets in their fire strategy, including how they would be evacuated. 

As part of the risk assessment process, they will need to consider how likely it is that these risks will arise, and how they will be controlled. Control measures could include vetting pets before they are allowed in the office (including making sure they have had their vaccinations), creating designated pet-friendly zones and requiring supervision by the pet's owner at all times.

Critical mass

There is also an issue of numbers when it comes to pets in the workplace. A pet-friendly policy might be more manageable for a small team of 20 people than a team of 200. The larger a team is, the more challenging it will be to manage any pet rota, interaction between pets, and the more likely that there will be team member with allergies or phobias to consider.

Commercial insurance

It is crucial to consider the practical issue of whether pets in the office is a scenario covered by the business's commercial insurance policy. This should be checked before any steps are taken to develop a pet-friendly policy and, if such scenarios are not covered, suitable commercial insurance must be agreed with the insurer before any pets are allowed in the office.

Landlord permission

If a company leases office space, the pet policy will be dependent on whether the landlord will allow pets in the building. A landlord would in turn need to check their own insurance and consult with other tenants in the building, so this can be a more difficult hurdle than it might first seem for some organisations. 

Osborne Clarke comment

Businesses are increasingly recognising the wellbeing impact that pets in the office can have on employees’ health and productivity, and an increasing number are now encouraging employees to bring their pets into the office by creating workplace policies that are pet friendly. While such policies can undoubtedly be beneficial for wellbeing, they should be decided based on what is best for the company, its people and culture, with all of the above elements taken into consideration.

If employers decide to create a pet-friendly policy, they should put in place clear guidelines and be transparent about expectations and limitations. It is worth consulting employees from the outset and then, if a company-wide policy is put in place, making it contingent on consultation at team level on whether to implement the policy (based on the thoughts of team members). This  allows for any allergies, phobias or other concerns to be confidentially declared.

If employers think an occasional allowance for pets in the office would be a more suitable solution for their company, they can consider allowing pets in the office for National Pet Day on 11 April or National Bring Your Dog To Work Day on 25 June. It is worth noting that a risk assessment, insurer and landlord  approval, office "pet-proofing", a code of conduct and employee consultation will still be required for a one day event, albeit with possibly a lighter touch. 

If workplace wellbeing is an area you're interested in discussing further, please don't hesitate to contact a member of our team. Please also see our Insights on mental health risk, sickness absence and wellbeing in the workplace.

This article is part of our "Legal Paws for Thought" series of Insights on the world of pets and relevant laws.

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* This article is current as of the date of its publication and does not necessarily reflect the present state of the law or relevant regulation.

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