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A Practical Guide to Including Emotional Support Animals in the Workplace

14 December 2022

The Americans with disabilities act ADA allows employees to request reasonable accommodations from their employers. Organizations should alter tasks and work environments to accommodate persons with disabilities. But, these requests shouldn't create unnecessary hardships for other employees or harm the company's bottom line.

Service animals are protected under national laws, so any request to allow them in the office is easy to meet. Service animals are trained to perform specific tasks that help people with disabilities. For instance, some can monitor vital signs of epilepsy, blood sugar, and other conditions. This allows the service animal to alert the owner or a workmate if there is an impending medical emergency.

Emotional support animals fall under a broader classification than service animals. For one, they are not trained to perform specific tasks to help the disabled. Instead, they offer companionship, comfort, and emotional support to their owners. Dogs make up a majority of service animals. But an emotional support animal could be anything from a cat, bird, ferret, piglet, etc.

To accommodate these support animals, organizations should take a practical and thoughtful approach that considers things such as property damage, hygiene issues, and liability. For example, when setting policies around emotional support animals in the workplace, employers should clearly communicate what types of animals are allowed, where they are allowed to go within the premises and any other concerns that are specific to their particular work environment.

Overall, with a little creativity and flexibility on both sides, businesses and their employees can reap the many benefits of incorporating emotional support animals into the workplace.

We have this practical guide to including emotional support animals in the workplace to help.



What is the Function of an Emotional Support Animal (ESA)?

The role of an emotional support animal is to provide constant comfort and support to those struggling with mild to severe mental health conditions. Whether cheering them up or providing a needed emotional connection, these animals can be incredibly valuable in helping their handlers cope with their conditions.

The law doesn't consider emotional support animals as service animals or pets. Therefore, they don't need any specialized training or official registration. You can also use any animal for emotional support–not a specific dog breed like service animals. But, they still need to behave or be controllable in public so they don't become a nuisance.

Emotional support animals are essential even though they aren't equipped to perform specific tasks. Having one around is enough to relieve symptoms of severe mental conditions like PTSD.

How does one qualify to have an emotional support animal? First, the owner must have a qualifying psychiatric or severe mental health condition. Then, it should be documented by a psychologist or licensed mental health professional.



How Does ESA Differ from Pets and Other Service Animals?

Pets

We keep pets out of love and need for companionship. But they don't always provide therapeutic benefits, so you can own one even if you don't have a physical or mental issue. They help us cope with loneliness and other issues. But we don't keep them for direct support like different classifications of service animals.

Therapeutic Animals

Service animals and emotional support animals can be trained to help anyone. But therapy animals offer attention, affection, and comfort to only one person, their owner. They are used to provide comfort to people in clinical settings. So, you may see them in hospitals, schools, and mental health institutions.

Service Animals

A service animal is a dog trained to do tasks that can help a person with a disability. Only dogs (and ponies under particular circumstances) have the empathy and intelligence to be trained as service animals. Some of these tasks include:

Guide dogs that help the blind or severely visually impaired navigate their surroundings

Hearing dogs that help the hearing impaired and deaf

Seizure response dogs help people with epilepsy or severe blood sugar issues track and react when they are about to have a seizure.

Psychiatric service dogs are trained to recognize and respond to psychiatric episodes to contain their effects on the owner. They are common among military veterans, where they help with PTSD.



Five Practical Steps to Including Emotional Support Animals in the Workplace

More and more people are recognizing the therapeutic and clinical benefits of having animals around, particularly in the workplace. Whether it is dogs or other animal species, this trend shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.

And as such, it is likely that at some point, you may encounter an employee who requests to bring their animal to work. Luckily, there are a number of tips that can help you navigate this complex issue and address any legal or health concerns that may arise.

Work Around Your No-animal Policy

Accommodating emotional support animals in an office requires significant changes in your workplace policy. Most companies and building owners have a strict no-animals policy. Start by looking at the language of the framework to see what you can modify.

This typically depends on the employee's work environment and job description. For instance, it's challenging to accommodate a worker having a service animal or ESA in certain situations. Imagine trying to accommodate a dog in a hospital, lab, kitchen, or other places that need sterile environments. So, take your time and consider all the consequences before proceeding with the request.

Request for Medical Documentation

Can you modify your no-animals policy? If so, the next step is requesting medical documentation from a licensed mental health professional. This may seem discriminative, but it's the most ethical way to confirm how you can accommodate the disability if it isn't clear from the start.

This step is optional as ADA's framework compels employers to accommodate the specific needs of a disabled person. So, you can use this as an opportunity to learn and do more to help your workers.

Discuss the Need for the Emotional Support Animal

An emotional support animal must always be under its handler's control. Otherwise, it will cause distractions and create unnecessary hardships for other employees in the office. So the next step is discussing with its handler to establish if all this is possible. You can move to the next step after you are satisfied with the outcome of such a conversation.

Establish If the Employee Can Perform Their Duties and Control Their ESA

While emotional support animals do not require any special training, it is important that they be well-behaved and not disruptive in the workplace. You will want to make sure that your ESA is comfortable around people and other animals and that it knows basic commands

So the owner needs to ensure their ESA is:

Well-behaved, i.e., doesn't bark uncontrollably, scratch, bite or bother your staff in other ways

Always leashed or harnessed if the disability doesn't keep the handler from executing

House trained and clean, i.e., it doesn't stink up the office or bring fleas, ticks, and other pests

Healthy, robust, and up-to-date on immunizations and vaccinations

Allow the Emotional Support Animal in the Workplace on a Trial Basis

So far, you've only covered the legal bases. And by now, your plan may look good on paper but may not be practical. The next step to ensure this is allowing the employee to bring in the animal on a trial basis to see how it works.

Consider drafting an agreement that makes the following items clear:

The length of the trial period

Responsibilities like feeding or cleaning after the ESA

Issues that may lead to early termination of the trial

How to extend or shorten the trail

Educate Customers And Clients About Your Emotional Support Animal Policy.

Customers and clients should be made aware of your ESA policy prior to their arrival at your workplace. This can be done through signage, website postings, or other means of communication.



How Can Others Interact with Employees that Use Emotional Support Animals?

Some employees can be accommodating enough to view the ESA as a furry workmate. At the same time, others may be too afraid to come close. Therefore, it makes sense to consider some rules for interacting with individuals who depend on emotional support animals.

These include:

Appreciate that your workmate and their ESA are a team that needs each other so:

Don't play with or distract the emotional support animal

Only touch or pet the animal if you have express permission from its handler

Have the patience to wait for the handler to give commands if you want to interact with the ESA

Treat the handler like you treat people without disabilities, i.e., speak in a normal tone, share appropriate jokes and invite them to stuff.

Key Takeaways

Emotional support animals offer a holistic approach to providing constant therapy to those with debilitating mental health issues. So many have been able to leave their homes and have a semblance of normalcy.

Many people confuse ESA for pets, service, and therapy animals. But, ESA is mainly for companionship, stress relief, and affection. They aren't trained to perform a specified task. Therefore, you're not limited to dogs.

Conclusion

We're lucky to live in a time where governments and the public sector take an empathetic stance on physical and mental impairments. So, more people seek help to overcome their disability-related symptoms and venture into the workforce.

Emotional support animals offer a holistic and painless way to do this. They are on an upward trend because we're not limited to dogs. We're likely to hear more about this subject. So, we'll update you as the frameworks and trends evolve. For now, we hope this practical guide helps your organization support employees that need their emotional support animals at work.