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Employee Wellbeing

The Positive Impact Therapy Animals Can Have in the Workplace

“I could feel my heart rate decline. When I got back to my desk I felt refreshed and invigorated and was able to tackle all of the projects in front of me successfully.” – Aetna employee

Isn’t that what every benefits and well-being leader wants to hear?

While we strive to offer many innovative well-being programs to our employees — from mindfulness practice and reimbursement for healthy behaviors to student loan repayment — our animal-assisted therapy program is unique and especially close to my heart.

As the owner of a rambunctious one-year-old Tibetan Terrier, I’ve seen firsthand the positive impact of pet ownership. In fact, Arianna Huffington spends several pages of her bestseller “Thrive” referencing the benefit of the human-animal bond, including reduced risk of heart disease, lower levels of stress and fewer feelings of loneliness.

It was while reading this book that I had my aha moment. I remember thinking to myself: these are the outcomes we’re trying to achieve among Aetna employees.

Creating smiles and wags

So we teamed up with Pet Partners, the leading organization for registering several species for therapy animal work. We piloted the program at eight Aetna offices before rolling it out to 13 additional sites. Once or twice a month, employees in these locations get to take a break from the stresses of the workday to spend time with Pet Partners’ registered therapy animals.

Our success has been overwhelming — even to someone who’s experienced the payoff of puppy love. From our pilot, 99 percent of participants said that interaction with the therapy animals improved or significantly improved their mood, and 99 percent of participants also said they were more productive after interacting with the therapy animals.

If you’re considering offering a similar program at your company or taking this to your employer for consideration, check out the four keys to our success:

1. Take a “toolkit” approach

We created materials that could be easily replicated and shared with other sites when the program was expanded. We also developed a hub on our intranet for sharing updates and information with all employees.

2. Identify local advocates

 The Benefits and Community Relations teams developed the program strategy, but implementation is led by employee volunteers who provide support beyond their jobs because they feel so strongly about the program’s importance. This also helped keep costs down and created a grassroots campaign because it really was built from and tailored to our sites.

3. Build leadership support

While engagement was very bottom-up, we definitely have support from the top. Senior leaders often stop by when the animals are in the office and continue to champion the program — as well as our broader well-being strategy.

4. Make it authentic

This program is aligned to who we are as a company, and to our other programs. In conjunction with this rollout, we expanded our well-being reimbursement program to help employees cover expenses associated with adopting a pet.

Our inspiration for this program started with a chapter on “(Furry) Friends with (Different) Benefits.” I’d love to get inspired by all of you next. Share some of the new and innovative well-being programs you have in your workplace in the comments below.

Kay Mooney, Vice President, Employee Benefits, & Well-Being, Aetna, [email protected]

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