Pausing for Pets

Nursing combines physical labor, the emotional demands of patients and families, and challenging interpersonal relationships, causing it to be one of the most stressful occupations a person can hold.1

Proactively Preventing Burnout
These stressors can directly impact job satisfaction, which is important to assess frequently in healthcare organizations as an effort to reduce factors contributing to burnout.

At Rush University Medical Center (RUMC), an academic medical center located in Chicago, employee satisfaction is measured yearly using the advisory board employee engagement survey. In October 2014, nursing-specific results showed an opportunity for improvement in the category called “my organization helps me deal with stress and burnout.”

During the action/planning phase in response to the survey results, acting chief nursing officer Patricia Nedved suggested instituting a pet visitation program for clinicians. Because Rush already had an established animal-assisted therapy (AAT) program for patients, it was felt that implementing a similar service for clinical employees would be a logical addition to our overall animal visitation program.nurses pose with therapy animals

Community Pet Partners
Nedved worked with Rush’s employee and organizational development (EOD) team to start the process for implementing canine visits for employees, with a focus on nursing participation. Initially, 5 nursing units were targeted in the pilot phase of the project; however, anyone working at the hospital was able to attend a session.

Beginning in March 2015, these sessions, which are called “Pet Pause,” were held once a month for 90 minutes in a central location. Dogs and their handlers were provided by volunteers from two Chicago-based organizations: the Anti-Cruelty Society and Canine Therapy Corps.

The Anti-Cruelty Society is a tax-exempt charitable organization that provides a variety of programs and services to help companion animals and those who care for them, including dog and cat adoptions. Volunteers from this organization bring their own dogs, which are trained in the Good Canine Citizen course created by the American Kennel Club. Canine Therapy Corps is a network of dedicated volunteers and their certified therapy dogs that offers rehabilitative therapy to people with physical and emotional challenges.

Petting Pets Pleases
During the first few months of the Pet Pause pilot, surveys were conducted, and these provided positive feedback from employees. For the April 2015 event, there were 64 participants; of these, 100% said they strongly agreed or agreed that pet visits increased their morale at work. When asked if they felt the visit helped decrease their stress, 100% responded they strongly agreed or agreed, and 100% felt the overall experience was beneficial.

Since the pilot project concluded that animal visits with nursing and other staff were beneficial, in the fall of 2015 all other staff were invited to interact with the therapy dogs for the purposes of stress release and promoting well-being.

Research Proves Pets Soothe
Melissa Browning, RUMC’s Magnet program director, discussed with Nedved the need to demonstrate the impact of Pet Pause through scientific research, since other studies have shown many positive outcomes of animal-assisted therapy to adult and pediatric patients, including decreased stress levels, blood pressure and heart rate.2

Past research conducted outside the health care setting demonstrated the positive impact of pets at work. One exploratory survey conducted in 2001, for example, polled 193 employees from 31 companies in Kentucky to determine the role of pets in the work place.3 The researchers determined that pets (cats in 32% of companies; dogs in 74% of companies) were perceived to decrease stress and to “positively affect employee health and organizational issues.”3

Within the health care setting, the results of a recent survey conducted by the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America reveal that, out of 337 health care facilities that responded to the survey, 279 of them allowed animal-assisted activities in their organizations.4

In 2005, another study eluded that stress levels in health care professionals may decrease five minutes after interaction with a therapy dog.5 Despite the documented benefits of AAT for patients and with respect to pets in other workplaces, a paucity of literature surrounds the impact of pet visitation on healthcare employees in their work environment-highlighting the need for further research.

Striving for Sounder Science
In January 2016, after obtaining approval from RUMC’s institutional review board, Browning and Mary Heitschmidt, RUMC’s director of clinical research, initiated a research study to assess the impact of the Pet Pause program on employees’ stress levels. Participants complete surveys pre- and post-participation, and manual blood pressure and stress level readings are obtained from employees before and after interacting with the animals.

SEE ALSO: Engaging Employees

Students from Rush College of Nursing volunteered to participate in data collection during the Pet Pause events. During nurses’ week this year, the Pet Pause program included miniature therapy horses, which were registered through Pet Partners, as part of the animal interactions for staff. The miniature horses were provided by Maine in Heaven, a non-profit organization that provides therapeutic benefits to disabled and able-bodied children and adults through animal-assisted activity and therapy visits.

Since the study at RUMC began, a total of 476 health care staff members have interacted with the therapy animals and more than 250 have participated in the study. It’s important to note: RUMC staff may choose to participate in the Pet Pause program without being a part of the research study. Browning and Heitschmidt plan to collect data through the end of August 2016, and hope to release the final results thereafter.

In conclusion, staff participants view the Pet Pause program as a positive experience, saying it’s a great way to take a break from their stressful clinical roles. With the number of participants increasing each month, RUMC hopes to validate this finding with the study’s results. We hypothesize that the Pet Pause program will continue to positively impact the healthcare workers, thereby promoting a healthy work environment. Further health care research is needed to demonstrate the effectiveness of such programs on employee stress and to encourage other organizations to develop similar programs.

1. Roberts R, Grubb PL, Grosch JW. Alleviating job stress in nurses.

2. Marcus DA. The science behind animal-assisted therapy. Curr Pain Headache Rep. 2013;17(4):322.

3. Wells M, Perrine R. Critters in the cube farm: perceived psychological and organizational effects of pets in the workplace. J Occup Health Psych. 2001;6(1):81-87.

4. Murthy R, Bearman G, Brown S, et al. Animals in healthcare facilities: recommendations to minimize potential risks. Infect Control Hosp Epidemiol. 2015;36(5):495-516.

5. Barker S, Knisely J, McCain N, Best A. Measuring stress and immune response in healthcare professionals following interaction with a therapy dog: a pilot study. Psychol Rep. 2005;96(1):713-729.

Melissa Browning is the Magnet program director at Rush University Medical Center; Patricia Nedved is RUMC’s acting chief nursing officer (CNO); and Mary Heitschmidt is the director of clinical research at RUMC.

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