Grieving a Pet’s Death: Should Workers Get Time Off?

Experts debate the wisdom of offering pet bereavement leave

By Dana Wilkie May 3, 2016
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Before Fiona Ong’s family adopted their first dog—a Japanese Spitz named Rook—Ong admits that she would have rolled her eyes if a colleague had taken time off to grieve the loss of a pet.

Even though Ong now appreciates the bond between people and their dogs, cats and other pets, the employment attorney for Shawe Rosenthal LLP in Baltimore still thinks that offering workers paid pet bereavement leave is largely misguided.

Some pet lovers would disagree with her. Among them is Charlotte Reed, host of the radio show “The Pet Buzz” in New York City, who says that recent news stories about such leave demonstrate that ours has become a culture where the bond between human and animal has never been tighter.

“I think [pet bereavement leave] is a good idea because the role of pets in our society is changing,” Reed said. “We now rely on technology for our needs—shopping, texting, working from home—and we don’t really have to interact with anyone anymore. People are waiting longer to get married and have children. Pets have filled a physical and emotional void for many people, so when a pet passes, it can be very difficult.”

It is rare for companies to offer paid pet bereavement leave. Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants, San Francisco, is one of few employers that offer a three-day pet bereavement leave. Some units of Mars Inc., the candy and pet-food maker, offer one or more days off, flexible hours, or freedom to work from home after a pet’s death. Palo Alto, Calif.-based software company VMware and Maxwell Health, a provider of an operating system for employee benefits in Boston, both give employees flexible days off to grieve lost pets. Pet insurance company Trupanion, based in Seattle, Wash., gives employees one paid pet bereavement day.

But the concept is still so new that the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) has yet to take a stance on pet bereavement leave, said Edward Yost, SHRM-SCP, an HR business partner and employee relations expert at SHRM.

Part of the Family

Almost all the participants in a 2015 Harris Poll—95 percent—said they considered their pets to be family members. This percentage has increased 7 points since 2007. The 2016 American Pet Products Association reported that Americans were expected this year to spend $62.75 million on their pets.

When pets die, nearly 1 out of 3 people grieve and feel sadness for at least six months, according to a 2009 study of 106 pet owners in the Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic, a peer-reviewed journal about psychiatric and mental illnesses. About 20 percent experience the same numbness, shock, disbelief, guilt or anger as people who are grieving another person’s death.

“In previous decades and generations, pets were often kept outdoors, and the bonding wasn’t as deep as it is today,” said Linda Anderson, co-author with her husband Allen of The New York Times best-selling book A Dog Named Leaf (Lyons Press, 2012) and Saying Goodbye to Your Angel Animals (New World Library, 2008). 

“Hundreds of thousands of social media posts attest to the variety of ways we’re relating to animals that would have been unthinkable in the past—getting them groomed, dressing them up, entering pets in contests, taking them on vacations. No wonder people are discussing pet bereavement leave. You have lost a vital part of your home and your heart.”

In Ong’s opinion, offering pet bereavement leave may be appropriate for some workplaces such as veterinary offices, pet supply stores and animal rescue organizations. But in general, she said, this type of leave would apply to only those workers who have pets, and may be resented by those who aren’t pet owners.

“You sometimes see this attitude with parental leave policies from employees without children,” Ong said. “Many employers provide PTO [paid time off] or vacation leave that can be used for any reason, such as vacation, doctor’s appointments, religious holidays—and pet bereavement leave. Each employee has the same amount of leave that they can choose to use however they wish, without giving any group of people, like pet owners, a special benefit.”

When a pet dies, taking a few days off by using sick or personal leave may be necessary, Yost said, to make burial arrangements, recuperate from long hours at the veterinarian’s office, “or merely for grieving.” 

Is a Separate Leave Policy Necessary?

Janet Zimmerman is a licensed social worker in Plainview, N.Y., who specializes in bereavement counseling. She said that having a specific pet loss bereavement policy is important because it “validates that this kind of grief is real.”

“Employees may not feel comfortable even bringing up this issue for fear of embarrassment or rejection,” she said. “People often feel that they have to hide their grief and get right back to work. Giving these people who are in terrible pain some acknowledgment that pet bereavement is a serious personal issue is just an empathic way to go.”

Reed said that without that company acknowledgment, some co-workers are prone to privately mock those who need time off following a pet’s death, or to trivialize the death by saying things like, “It was just a cat.”

“I understand that it costs companies money when their employees take time off,” Zimmerman said. “Giving employees time off could conceivably hurt their bottom line. What I would hope companies would strive for is to be sensitive to and acknowledge that pet loss bereavement is real. It is terribly painful and difficult for many people. Some people become clinically depressed; they don’t eat, they can’t sleep, they don’t groom themselves or even get dressed.”

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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