How ‘Bring Your Dog to Work’ Days Could Lower Stress

A study finds that your four-legged companion can be a great stress reliever at work and encourage better relationships with co-workers too

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If you’re a pet person, there’s probably nothing you’d like more than to take your four-legged buddy to work with you. And if the latest research is any indication, you’d probably be a lot happier and less stressed on the job if you did.

In a preliminary study published in the International Journal of Workplace Health Management, scientists found that people who took their dogs to work reported lower stress throughout the day than employees without pets or those who had pets but didn’t take them to work.

Many previous studies have linked the presence of pets with less stress and better health. In studies in hospitals and nursing homes, for example, animals, whether on short visits or longer stays, have contributed to lower blood pressure, faster recovery from surgery and even improvements in depression for patients. So Randolph Barker, a professor of management at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Business, wondered how much benefit employees could get from having a furry friend with them on the job.

(MORE: Dog Walkers Get More Exercise)

Barker conducted his study at Replacements Ltd., a company in Greensboro, N.C., that provides retail, repair and manufacturing services. For the past 15 years, the company has allowed employees to take their dogs to work with them, and at any given time, about 20 to 30 dogs wander the premises, from the reception desk to the manufacturing areas. For their weeklong study, Barker and his team recruited 75 employees to participate. Each morning upon waking, the employees took their own saliva samples, so scientists could measure their cortisol, or stress hormone, levels. The participants also completed surveys about their stress levels four times a day.

Dog owners who took their pets to work were asked to take their pets every other day, so the scientists could compare their stress levels on days the dogs were present and on the days they weren’t.

Overall, Barker found that employees who took their pets to work had the lowest stress, with scores on a standardized test that were consistently 10 to 20 points lower than those of employees who didn’t take their dogs to work or who didn’t own pets at all. Dog owners who took their pets to work showed slightly higher stress levels on days they weren’t allowed to take their companion with them.

Interestingly, those with the highest stress scores were pet owners who did not take their dog to work. Their scores were more than twice as high as employees who took their animals to the workplace.

(MORE: A New Way to Detect Lung Cancer? Dogs Can Sniff It Out)

The study was only a preliminary attempt to quantify the effect of animal companionship on things like workplace stress, job satisfaction, connectedness to the organization and communication. Barker and his group did not go so far as to measure participants’ cortisol levels at the end of the day for an objective comparison of stress-hormone changes after each day’s work. The three groups did not differ significantly as far as their morning cortisol levels were concerned.

The groups also did not differ significantly on their feelings about how much support they received from the company, their job satisfaction or their feelings of commitment to the organization. But, says Barker, when taken as a whole, all of the employees — those who took their pets to work, those who didn’t and those who didn’t have any pets — scored higher on job satisfaction than the industry norm. And that suggests that pets may have an overall positive effect on stress and performance in a workplace, Barker says.

“If people feel stress in the workplace, typically research shows that’s linked to various behavioral outcomes — lower job performance, poor decisionmaking, work accidents and aggressive behavior. Having animals around can literally be a buffer these outcomes and may help individuals cope much more effectively with situations that can cause stress in the workplace,” says Barker.

(MORE: Study: Pets Give Us the Same Warm Fuzzies That Friends Do)

So although the employees in the study didn’t differ much on their reports of job satisfaction or commitment to the organization, regardless of their pet status, all of the company’s employees may have benefited on the whole from having pets around. The researchers note that people without pets or who had left their pets at home tended to engage their co-workers with pets and offered to take the animals for walks during breaks. Such increased communication can foster stronger bonds and promote a more cohesive and integrated social environment, which can lead to employees feeling more wanted and part of an organization, Barker says. “Having pets around tended to increase communication, and that may have a positive bearing on people’s perception of their satisfaction, involvement and commitment to a company,” he says.

Plus, going for a walk with a dog during the day is a great way to get more physically active, which can have other health benefits — for your heart and your waistline — as well.

But of course not everyone is a pet lover, and for those who are either allergic to animals or not fond of having them underfoot around a workplace, they can be an additional source of stress. So employers who are considering bring-your-pet-to-work days should develop policies that respect all employees concerns, and find appropriate ways of ensuring that pets and people can coexist — stress-free.

MORE: Friends with Benefits: The Science of Animal Friendships

Park is a writer at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @aliceparkny. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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