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Grieving the Loss of a Pet: An Overlooked Employee Absence Issue?

Employers often provide time off from work — even a leave of absence — for the death of a family member. But what if that lost family member is a dog or a cat?

While it may not be a recognized condition for FMLA, for many employees, losing Fido or Fluffy can be a source of surprisingly strong grief.

For many people, pets are beloved family members, and their passing can cause a grief response similar to the death of a person, only in that case, it’s grief with little outlet as the employee often correctly assumes that coworkers and supervisors will not understand or sympathize.

On the job, that grief with no outlet can cause presenteeism and even absence due to unexplained depression.

According to a recent article in the New York Times, researchers at the University of Hawaii who conducted a study to determine the level of grief and stress that pet owners experience after a pet dies found that 30 percent of the study subjects reported grief that lasted six months or longer. Severe grief that resulted in a major life disruption was as high as 12 percent of study participants.

Case managers who are helping employees with depression or other behavioral health issues should be aware of the following:

  • Grieving for a lost pet can have a surprisingly profound effect on employees.
  • Employees who are suffering from pet-loss grief may be extremely reluctant to admit the issue.
  • There are many behavioral health resources — such as support groups — that employees can be referred to as part of case management.
  • When dealing with grieving employees, case managers should focus on the physical or mental restrictions/limitations.
  • Employees may qualify for FMLA if depression is certified by a qualified physician.
  • The Humane Society’s website offers suggestions on where and how to help employees who are coping with an exceptionally strong response to the loss of a pet.

Clearly, adding a health advocacy role to intake as part of the employer’s health and productivity initiative can provide support for the grief process, regardless of whether the loss was a person, a pet or other grief-inducing loss.

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