Katie Adkins’ five-year-old corgi, Goliath, had a name that didn’t really fit.
“It was kind of a joke at first, because he was so short,” Adkins says of her dog. “But he certainly thought he was Goliath-sized. He was so full of energy and so smart.”
When Goliath unexpectedly died, Adkins says it was “like losing a best friend”.
For Katie Adkins and her boyfriend Derek, the bereavement leave her employer granted to mourn her Corgi, Goliath, was deeply appreciated (Credit: Katie Adkins)
“Goliath was the first dog I ever truly called my own. He’d been with me through a lot: friends, roommates, moves. He was there when I bought my first house.”
So, when Adkins’ employer let her take two days off to mourn Goliath, she was incredibly grateful. Her boss “was very sympathetic. She immediately told me not to worry about anything work-related and to take as much time as I needed.”
Most bosses are not so generous – such a request might be met with surprise at many workplaces.
But as pets become more popular in the office and at home, and as people spend more money on their furry friends, it raises the question: should we get time off if a pet dies?
Pets as office fixtures
According to GfK, Germany's largest market research firm, over half of people in the world kept at least one type of pet, such as dog, cat, fish or bird, in 2016.
“The proliferation of [pets] and how they impact our lives have really exploded in the last five or ten years,” says Dan Ryan, a recruiting expert at the US Society for Human Resource Management.
He points to things like pet chemotherapy, pet antidepressants and joint replacement surgeries for pets that have become increasingly popular. Pet care is big business – last year, according to Euromonitor International, the industry reached $110 billion globally.
Many companies, especially in the tech industry, have long welcomed animals like dogs and cats into their midst (Credit: Getty Images)
That popularity is being seen in the workplace, as more offices offer perks like ‘Bring your Dog to Work Day’. Others have enshrined it into their daily culture: the offices of Silicon Valley behemoths like Google and Amazon are filled with dogs, ice cream company Ben & Jerry’s welcomes its employees’ “K9-5ers”, and Ferray, a Tokyo-based IT firm, doubles as a home to its staff’s cats.
One marketing firm offers 'fur-ternity leave', which gives staff the opportunity to take time off to spend with a new pet
One marketing firm in the US state of Minneapolis even offers “fur-ternity leave”, which gives staff the opportunity to take time off to spend with a new pet.
Still, embracing pooches at the company HQ is one thing. But when tragedy strikes and we have to say goodbye to our animal companions… will management be as supportive?
Adkins works in Tennessee as a digital brand specialist at Mars PetCare, the largest pet food firm in America.
While it seems obvious that a pet goods company would be quick to grant workers time off after the death of a pet, even at Mars PetCare workers aren’t allocated specific pet bereavement days – each case is treated individually.
But could this change?
Should you be allowed to take time off for a pet’s death?
I put this question to Susan Stehlik, director of the management communications programme at New York University. “My immediate reaction, from an HR perspective, is no,” she says, and that many of her colleagues rolled their eyes when she canvassed their own opinions.
The day a manager doesn’t show compassion, then the worker turns around and says, ‘this is a hostile work environment' – Susan Stehlik
But the more she thought about it, the more it made sense. Stehlik says from a human perspective, managers need to show compassion: “You have to honour how people put love in their life,” she says. “The day a manager doesn’t show compassion, then the worker turns around and says, ‘this is a hostile work environment.’”
Turning down such requests can create unproductive workers, adds Cary Cooper, a professor of organisational psychology at the University of Manchester. Without proper leave to mourn, a bereaved employee’s “body is there, but they deliver no added value.”
A note from the vet?
Pet bereavement leave could be easier to abuse than policies for people, Ryan says. “How can you prove they really had a dog?”
“Are you going to get a note from your veterinarian saying your dog died? It becomes challenging to implement.”
Ryan isn’t singling out pet owners as opportunists looking exploit generous bosses. Rather, “some people are always looking for an opportunity to exploit a rule or a policy within the workplace.”
Cooper thinks that people abusing the benefit would actually be quite rare. He says job security isn’t what it used to be – “jobs are no longer for life” – and he reckons shady behaviour would leave an unsavoury trail for HR if it ever came time to cut costs.
“There’s a psychological contract between them and the employer” when an employee benefit exists, Cooper says. “They have to honour their part of the contract, which is to deliver added value.”
Bereavement leave for pets is very uncommon - but that might be changing as more people spend more time and money on their pets (Credit: Getty Images)
Do we grieve for pets as much as we do people?
Coming up with a clear definition of a “pet” can complicate matters, says John Bradshaw, is the foundation director of the Anthrozoology Institute at the University of Bristol in the UK, who has long studied the relationship between pets and humans.
“I don't think it's feasible for employers to offer days off for the loss of a pet,” he says. “Not because the owner's grief may not be genuine, but because it's difficult to produce a hard-edged definition for ‘pet’.”
While owners may consider fish and reptiles as pets, the American Veterinary Medical Association includes only dogs, cats, cage birds and horses as ‘companion animals’
For example, while owners may consider fish and reptiles as pets, the American Veterinary Medical Association includes only dogs, cats, cage birds and horses as ‘companion animals’.
“I can see difficulties in deciding who should be entitled to time off, and who shouldn't,” Bradshaw says. HR expert Ryan agrees, and that if a company were to roll out such a policy, it needs to be as black-and-white as possible.
Bradshaw also argues that there are “subtle differences between the grief felt for pets and that felt for close, human relatives”: that, for example, many pet owners get a new pet within a few months, whereas grief lasts for many years when a close family member dies.
“It's commonplace for owners to speak of their pets as ‘one of the family’, but this may be no more than a convenient way to describe them,” Bradshaw adds.
However companies decide to accommodate the changing needs of their workforce, and as pet ownership is so widespread – 68% of families in the US, for example – the topic of employee pet care is unlikely to go away.
“You can’t ignore the numbers,” Stehlik says. “So if the majority of the population is experiencing this, then companies need to get with the programme.”
Bryan Lufkin is BBC Capital’s features writer. Follow him on Twitter @bryan_lufkin.
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