Working with animals can develop greater compassion in employees, research shows

Working with animals can develop greater compassion in employees, research shows

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While it is unconventional to have animals at the workplace, employers can consider feasible ways to do so — such as in compassion training workshops.

Animal lovers would like this: recent research has shown that working with animals can develop greater compassion in employees — what was deemed an "unintended benefit". And this greater compassion, the research noted, could lead employees to work better with their colleagues.

The research was conducted by the National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School, and published in the journal titled Personnel Psychology on 10 May 2022. 

"Humans and animals often work together to achieve a certain goal. For example, police officers work with sniffer dogs to detect illegal drugs, and equine therapists work with horses to improve the physical and mental health of the rider. But not much is known about the impact of working with animals on employees. That is what we set out to find out," said Associate Professor Sam Yam Kai Chi, Head of the School’s Department of Management & Organisation, who also led the research.

Studies that led to the findings

The research involved three studies, of which the first surveyed 71 employees from the Life Sciences departments of Mandai Wildlife Group in Singapore on their emotions and prosocial behaviour towards others, over two weeks in 2020. The respondents also answered questions on their perceptions of whether animals can think or experience emotions.

As part of this study, the employees surveyed reported a higher level of compassion whenever they had interacted more with animals. In fact, the more they perceived the animals to be able to feel and think, the stronger the impact of animal interaction on their compassion and behaviour towards others.

Explaining this, Assoc Prof Yam said: "Compassion means being aware of others’ suffering and having a desire to help. It is hard to spot your colleagues' struggles, because humans are afraid to show their vulnerability and are surprisingly good at hiding their suffering. In contrast, employees who work with animals are trained to constantly look out for animals' non-verbal signs of discomfort.

"Interestingly, this animal-induced compassion spills over to make them more prosocial towards their colleagues, such as going the extra mile to help others."

The second study, conducted in 2021, involved 121 employees in Hong Kong who come from different organisations and work with animals in providing services or entertainment.

The employees were split into two groups: one group was instructed to write about a recent incident of working closely with animals to achieve work goals. The second group, which was the control group, was instructed to write about an incident involving pursuing goals at work.

Both groups were surveyed on their compassion levels after the writing, and the researchers found that those who recalled working with animals felt significantly more compassionate than the control group.

Then came the third study, held in 2021 and surveying 178 employees in the US on their animal interaction and compassion levels. However, this time, the employees’ prosocial behaviour was reported by their direct supervisors.

Per the findings from this study, whenever employees had higher levels of working with animals, they, in turn, developed greater compassion and prosocial behaviour.

Findings from the third study showed that when there were higher levels of working with animals, the employees developed greater compassion and prosocial behaviour too.

So what do these really mean?

With all the above on hand, the research suggests that working with animals can lead to benefits at the workplace — for both employees and their organisations.

Thus, Assoc Prof Yam pointed out, organisations can "actively consider whether it is feasible to introduce animals to the workplace, such as in compassion training workshops".

Research assistant Carisa Lam added: "While the presence of animals is unconventional in many workplaces, we believe that with the right structure and rules in place to tackle practical considerations, working with animals can be a novel way to cultivate compassion in employees."

Image: 123RF

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