When Mariah Ahern was in the sixth grade, she got a birthday present that touched off an instant and inseparable bond: a spunky West Highland terrier named Pippin.
But last winter, nearly 15 years after Pippin came bounding into her life, "her body just started failing," Ahern says. "It was old age. She was my childhood dog and I had to bury her."
The last thing Ahern, a human resources coordinator for Seattle-based online pet-sitting service Rover.com, wanted to worry about was work. And because her company offers paid pet bereavement leave, she could focus on saying goodbye.
"It was such an emotionally raw time," Ahern says. The company offers three days off to mourn the loss of a pet. But it's not just pet-related businesses that are beginning to realize the value of giving employees paid time off for the death or critical illness of a furry family member.
"Let's face it, employees experiencing traumatic loss in their personal lives don't always mentally show up 100 percent at work," says Joey Price, a Baltimore-based human resources consultant for small businesses. Given how people feel about their pets, Price says, more companies are realizing that you can't put a dollar figure on the benefits of this policy.
"Showing that you are a thoughtful employer who cares as much about personal mental health as you do about productivity will pay dividends in employee satisfaction, retention, and overall goodwill," says Price.
Even though pet loss is not legally a protected category of family leave, Price encourages businesses to explore ways to give workers time off to heal, such as flexible paid time off policies.
As more companies consider the connection between culture and performance, more workers are looking for employers who put their money where their values are.
"It's definitely a way to recruit the right people," says Nikki Kowalzyk, a San Francisco account manager for Boston-based Maxwell Health, which creates software for employee benefits programs. Last year, Kowalzyk's seven-year-old French bulldog Oliver needed emergency surgery for failure to thrive. Since Maxwell Health offers paid time off and a remote work option for pet illness and bereavement, Kowalzyk was able to work a flexible schedule the week Oliver was in the hospital.
Kowalzyk says the policy increased not only her loyalty but also her productivity. "They said this is your child, take the time you need," she recalls. "Since then, I've just wanted to give double back."
Validating the loss
Experts say these policies are also important for acknowledging the profound impact of pet loss, given that grieving employees are sometimes the subject of ridicule by co-workers. Pet bereavement policies, in addition to providing time and space for grief, also serve to validate that grief.
"I talk to people who say, 'No one understands. They are telling me it's just a dog,'" says Dr. Alicia Karas, a veterinarian and an assistant professor at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University.
"There are a lot of people who have never experienced this bond, so they don't understand the importance, or what this loss is like," adds Karas, who is also the faculty mentor for the school's pet-loss support hotline. The invalidation from co-workers, she says, "adds another layer of difficulty."
Matt Klepac, a New York City-based technology marketing executive, knows that some people will roll their eyes at the notion of paid time off for pet loss. "If you have never been close to a pet, I can understand the gut kick reaction to say pet bereavement is crazy," he says. "But that's like someone saying they know all about parenthood but in fact have never even babysat the neighbor's newborn."
Earlier this year, Klepac lost his dog Luciano. His wife was able to use flextime for processing her grief in the days after his passing, but Klepac wasn't able to take any time off.
"I wish I could have been with my wife as she struggled through those days off," he says. "And I wish I could have grieved properly."
The lesson here, Klepac says, is for companies to realize the importance of putting their people first.
"If you invest in your team, they will give you the shirt off their back. Getting in touch with your people and understanding their love for family, including their pet, is vital," Klepac says. "I wish I could have been there to let him go."
Pet bereavement policies are important vehicles for making employees feel valued. Whether it's giving workers paid days off to grieve, allowing flexible scheduling and remote work for critical care appointments, or simply creating a culture of empathy, the key is acknowledging the significance of the employees' lives--by acknowledging the significance of their loss.