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Are paws the answer to workplace stress?

How often do you feel stressed or frustrated at work? Weekly, daily…hourly?! Well based on a study by Quantum Workplace, you’re not alone with up to 30% of people admitting to feeling frustrated, stressed, anxious, or annoyed at work on a daily basis.

We can probably all easily describe a situation in which we have felt stressed and the feelings associated with it; increased heart rate, sweaty palms, loss of appetite, headaches, maybe difficulty sleeping? 

But what actually happens when we get stressed?

When we get stressed, our bodies are flooded with hormones including cortisol and epinephrine. These hormones prepare our bodies for emergency action, mobilising stored energy and thus increasing our strength and stamina. This hormonal shift also creates an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate while at the same time, causes our secondary functions such as our digestive and reproductive systems, to temporarily shut down.

This reaction is commonly known as the ‘fight or flight’ response and is the same response to that when we feel fear. 

What impact does stress have on us?

A certain level of stress is necessary for us all. It helps us to focus, step up to challenges and stay alert. However long term stress can be devastating, leading to chronic illness and sometimes even fatalities. 

Long term or chronic stress has an impact on nearly every bodily system. It can suppress our immune system, alter the makeup of our digestive system and upset our reproductive system. Chronic stress increases the risk of heart attacks and strokes and speeds up the ageing process. It can also make us more vulnerable to mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.

What impact is work having on our stress levels? 

Based on figures from the Labour Force Survey, levels of work related stress have been steadily rising since 2014, peaking at 602,000 people impacted in 2018/19. The same survey found that this resulted in 12.8 million working days lost.

62% of managers have had to put the interests of their organisation above staff wellbeing either sometimes either sometimes, regularly or every day over the last year (1). It’s a fine balance but with 2 in 5 (1) of us experiencing poor mental health symptoms related to work over the same timeframe, can we really keep making this sacrifice? 

So why are stress levels rising? 

According to a 2020 study by Perkbox, ‘work-related office politics’ (37%) are the most common cause of work-related stress, followed by ‘lack of interdepartmental communications’ (34%), and ‘the work performance of others’ (33%). 

Technological advances have also been cited as influencers of stress, with people admitting to checking emails on evenings, weekends and during annual leave (guilty as charged!), preventing our ability to switch off and recharge.

What evidence is there to suggest that dogs can reduce levels of stress in people?

Could dogs really be a treatment for stress? There’s certainly a lot of evidence to suggest this could be the case, with researchers finding that our levels of cortisol decrease when engaging with an animal (2). 

My personal favourite study compared the effects of the presence of a spouse or family pet on individuals’ cardiovascular responses to a stressful task (3). In this study, they recorded blood pressure and heart rate in one of three conditions; alone (control), when submerging their hand in ice water and a mental arithmetic task. These conditions were measured in the presence of a spouse, or in the presence of a pet. Results showed that heart rate and blood pressure were significantly lower when a pet was present than when a spouse was present. I guess this proves what we’ve known all along – pets really are a ‘man’s’ best friend!

It’s just the most amazing thing to love a dog, isn’t it? It makes our relationships with people seem as boring as a bowl of oatmeal.

John Grogan

More evidence comes from a study of 48 stockbrokers with high blood pressure which found that those who adopted a pet had significantly lower blood pressure readings in stressful situations that stockbrokers who did not own a pet (4). 

A further study by O’Neill Stephens (5) found even more striking evidence suggesting that merely looking at a dog lying down can have a calming effect for many.

Another study backing the sentiment that a dog is a man’s best friend came when researchers found that patients’ levels of epinephrine (a hormone that the body makes under stress as mentioned above) dropped 17% when visited by a person and a dog, versus 2% when visited by a human alone (6).

A well cited workplace study by Virginia Commonwealth University also found that employees who brought their dogs to work experienced lower stress levels throughout the work day, reported higher levels of job satisfaction, and had a more positive perception of their employer (7).

Ready to embrace the stress reducing powers of dogs at your workplace?

We know that having dogs in the workplace every day isn’t practical for every organisation and we’re proud to be able to play our part in supporting these organisations and their people. Drop us a line and we’d love to tell you more. 

References

  1. Business in the Community, Mental Health at Work 2019 Report 
  2. Creagan, T., Bauer, B., & Thomley, B. (2015). Animal-assisted therapy at Mayo Clinic: The time is now. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, 101-104.
  3. Allen K.M., Blascovich J., Mendes W.B. Cardiovascular reactivity and the presence of pets, friends, and spouses: The truth about cats and dogs. Psychosom. Med. 2002;64:727–739.
  4.  “The pet connection.” Mind, Mood & Memory 2.8 (August 2006): 5(1). General OneFile. Gale. University of Delaware Library. 23 July 2008 
  5. O’Neill-Stephens, E. (2014). The Dog Days of Justice: Using Courthouse Dogs to Comfort Testifying Witnesses with Minimal Prejudice to Criminal Defendants. Court house Dogs. 
  6. Altman, Lawrence. K. (2005, November 15). Study Identifies Heart Patient’s Best Friend. The New York Times. Retrieved March 17, 2015, from http://www.nytimes.com/2005/11/16/health/16dog.html
  7. Virginia Commonwealth University, 2012
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