Pet Pause Reduces Workplace Stress

Researchers pioneer petting pooches to prevail over pressure

By Deb Song

Working as a nurse in the medical intensive care unit at Rush University Medical Center, Juan Aguirre, RN, routinely contends with constant beeping from monitors, managing the care of gravely ill patients, addressing the concerns of worried families, and triple checking the accuracy of patients’ medicines and doses. Sometimes, the stress of his work causes him to go to the dogs, literally.

Aguirre is among the Rush employees who flock to a ground floor hospital lobby to visit with and pet dogs brought there for a program known as Pet Pause. “There are times when I get attached to a patient and their family. It can be a rough journey for them as well as for us as their nurses,” Aguirre says.

“After my session at Pet Pause, my stress level is decreased and I always walk away happy, feeling refreshed and able to go back to the unit to take care of my patients,” he continues.

Sit. Stay. Roll over. Reduce blood pressure.

Health care facilities increasingly use animal therapy to help young and old patients who are hospitalized forget about their ailments for a short period of time. Now, nursing researchers at Rush are trying pet therapy with the Medical Center’s own clinicians to see if it has measurable health benefits for these caregivers as well.

Doctors, nurses, technicians and other clinical staff members line up for the chance to pet the specially trained and groomed dogs during the animal therapy session, which is held once a month for three hours. Each participant is asked to take a survey to identify their level of stress on a scale of one to 10, from least stressed to most stressed. They also have their blood pressure taken. 

Then each person can pet one or all of the therapy dogs as long as they want. After their petting session, the researchers take each employee’s blood pressure again.

Doggone relief benefits patients as well

“Working in a hospital can be very stressful,” says Patricia Nedved, MSN, acting chief nursing officer at Rush, who started the Pet Pause program as an employee satisfaction initiative more than a year ago in collaboration with Rush’s human resources department. “Caring for acutely ill patients and their worried loved ones can add up.”

“Early research indicates that interacting with pets may decrease blood pressure, lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels and combat feelings of loneliness,” Nedved adds. “We wanted to see if we can measure these positive effects of pet therapy on clinical staff and a workplace environment. Ensuring that nurses, doctors and other clinicians get some stress relief is not only good for them, but also for all the lives they touch.”

So far, the program has been very popular and successful among the employees who pet therapy dogs provided by Chicago-based Canine Therapy Corp. and the Anti-Cruelty Society of Chicago. Volunteers bring the dogs, which come in all sizes and include breeds such as a Westie, Labradoodle mix and a German shepherd mix.

“This small break I take makes me feel better, and I am thankful for it,” Aguirre says.

The Pet Pause Program and study is one of many innovative pet therapy programs Rush is offering. Rush was the first hospital in Illinois to implement a Patient’s Own Pet policy allowing hospitalized patients to bring in their own pets, subject to certain conditions such as having the cat or dog groomed 24 hours before the visit. Rush also hosts a monthly miniature horse therapy program for hospitalized children and adults.