Animal lover Rebecca McCathen has mourned the death of four pets in less than three years, including a strong-willed, reddish-brown Chow mix named Trina, who succumbed to old age about two months ago. The human resources manager was able to take time off to deal with her grief away from the office with the blessing of her employer, something many workers aren't able to do.
"I took a couple of days off work and worked from home the entire week," wrote McCathern, an executive with tech company VMware (VMW), in an email. "By the time she had passed, there was a lot of loss in our home. My managers and my team completely supported me through these losses."
Like most companies, VMware doesn't have a formal pet bereavement policy, but it provides "flexibility" under its nonaccrued vacation benefits that allow workers "to take the time off you need to deal with life," according to Michael Thacker, a company spokesman.
The company, though, is unusual. Most don't recognize pet bereavement as serious issue. Typically, employees wind up using sick time or vacation days in those circumstances. There are some exceptions. Pet insurance providers PetPlan and Trupanion have formal pet bereavement policies as does Double Forte, a public relations firm.
"The company is 13 years old, and we have probably granted it about a dozen times mostly for dogs, some cats and one horse," said Double Forte CEO Lee Caraher. "My experience here has been that it's never been an issue for anyone else in the company when someone else has taken the day" to mourn a pet.
The loss of a pet can be emotionally devastating to employees and can have a profound impact on their emotional well-being and productivity. A 2009 study by the University of Hawaii found that about 30 percent of pet owners experienced grief that lasted for six months or longer.
But those who mourn the death of a pet often don't get much sympathy from their colleagues. "People go, 'well it was just dog,' or 'just a cat' or 'you can get another one,'" said Nancy Logan, a program coordinator at the nonprofit Grief Recovery Institute. "It is trivialized in some ways."
Although most employees provide these benefits on an ad-hoc basis, that may change as businesses vie to attract employees in a tightening labor market.
"Given the fact that more and more organizations are offering pet insurance as one of their voluntary benefits, it wouldn't surprise me if that were one of the things that they would potentially offer. Maybe a day, two days, something like that," said Edward Yost, a Society for Human Resources Management spokesman.
When a pet dies, he said, people "have a real, physical and emotional response to that which would prompt them to take sick leave anyway."