Paws and Relax: U of G studies mental wellness among hospital staff

GUELPH – As health and wellness programs have become part of work life, companies have turned to animals to provide rest and reprieve from the demands of the job. 

A new research project from the University of Guelph (U of G) is looking at what impact those furry friends can have on health care professionals.

At Cambridge Memorial Hospital (CMH), facility dog Ember is a black Labrador retriever who works eight-hour shifts alongside staff, physicians, midwives and volunteers, offering stress relief, mental health support and emotional comfort in a high-stress environment.

Reducing stress

The research, led by Dr. Basem Gohar, builds on previous studies that assessed the mental health of various health care providers. 

Gohar is a clinical psychologist and professor in the Department of Population Medicine at the Ontario Veterinary College, where he leads U of G’s Research in Occupational Health and Wellness Lab. 

“This is a first for me,” Gohar said of research focused on human and animal interaction. “I’m excited to see what we can learn from Ember.” 

Interacting with animals has been shown to reduce stress and loneliness, boost moods and increase feelings of social support. 

Research has shown that organizational efforts are more effective than individual-directed initiatives in supporting employee well-being, particularly for burnout.

“While Ember is the star of the show, the underlying factor that we want to address is how we can support and retain staff. That’s the goal,” said Gohar.

In partnership with CMH and with funding support from a partner engage grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, Gohar’s team is taking an in-depth approach through one-on-one interviews with staff. 

Joining Gohar in this investigation are Dr. Jason Coe and Dr. Katie Clow, both veterinarians with expertise in human-animal bond.

Mental health impacted 

CMH is the first Canadian hospital to have an animal certified by National Service Dogs (NSD) in a health care setting – something police, fire departments and other first responders have done previously. 

Ember was trained by NSD and uses four cues that range from minimal contact and quick pets to jumping over someone’s lap, an exercise that can provide the same benefits as a weighted blanket, calming a person by relaxing their nervous system.

Much like a doctor or a nurse, Ember makes the hospital rounds each day, starting in the emergency department and then rotating through assigned areas for 30-minute visits. 

Certain areas can accommodate Ember when off leash, allowing for greater interactions with staff.

Ember is not a therapy dog, so her interactions with patients are little to none. At the entrance to the hospital, visitors are greeted with a notice displaying Ember’s photo, name and role at CMH, so they are aware of her presence.

When she’s not on shift at CMH, Ember lives with her primary handler – there are four in total – who provide food, lodging and veterinary care, supported by the Lyle S. Hallman Foundation.

CMH is an active teaching facility, so a program of this nature fits the culture well, said CEO Patrick Gaskin.

“We know this provides great value to our staff and that there are significant benefits in it,” he said. 

“Hospitals are incredibly stressful environments. When you work on the front line in an emergency room, it can be traumatic. 

“You’re asking staff to face that and then an hour later, to go see another patient.”

Positive feedback

Ember has been at work at CMH since May 2022 and the feedback from staff has been very positive, said wellness and well-being specialist at CMH (and one of Ember’s handlers) Jenna Bilenduke. 

“I’ve had multiple staff members mention that Ember has helped them through a tough time, which just highlights how you never know what people are going through,” she explained.

“Even something as small as petting a dog can be the reason that someone was able to make it through the day. That’s why she’s here.”