In 2022, a man sued the U.K. supermarket chain Sainsbury’s after one of its stores refused to let his emotional support animal (ESA), a cat, enter with him. The case is still unresolved, as is the question of ESAs and their appropriateness in U.K. businesses—and particularly workplaces.
“In the U.K., there is no legislation that directly permits nor prohibits ESAs in the workplace,” said Beth Johnston, an attorney with Dentons in Glasgow, Scotland. “However, there are certainly other pieces of legislation that employers should be aware of when considering whether to allow ESAs into their workplace, including health and safety regulations and the Equality Act 2010.”
Current U.K. laws could be interpreted to allow ESAs, said David Whincup, an attorney with Squire Patton Boggs in London.
“The general law says that if your employee is disabled, then the employer must make reasonable adjustments to try to level the playing field to some extent,” he said. “There’s no legal reason why that should not include emotional support animals.”
Are ESAs Necessary?
ESAs differ from service animals, such as guide dogs, in that they don’t need to receive any sort of training or qualification. This makes it tricky to determine their necessity.
With little specific guidance provided in the law, U.K. employers need to weigh several factors. First, the employer should consider what animal—if any—could potentially be welcome in the workplace as an ESA. Second, the employer should think about whether there will be a set of criteria and a formal application process, as well as when, where and why the animal would be allowed at the workplace.
“Employers can ask for proof of claimed illness, whether it’s mental or physical. But of course, it doesn’t necessarily get the employee very far,” Whincup said. “Where the proposed company of an animal is concerned, what’s a need and what’s a preference? What’s a comfort, but not actually making any real difference to the employee’s ability to work or present their case in a disciplinary or grievance meeting? It’s extremely gray.”
Practical Problems for Other Employees
ESAs in the workplace can quickly present some practical problems.
“Employers will also need to consider whether their workplace is safe for ESAs, as not all workplaces will be animal-friendly,” Johnston said. “Employers will also have to be mindful that not everyone is an animal person, and indeed, some employees may also have allergies to certain animals. If an employer is considering allowing ESAs, they should have open conversations with their employees and be prepared to either prioritize or accommodate those who do not want or are not able to be around ESAs in the workplace.”
Accommodating People with Disabilities
Though there are few specifics in U.K. law about ESAs, workplaces should revisit their policies, as there can be consequences in some cases if these animals are not allowed in.
“From a legal perspective, a disabled employee may request that their employer allows them to bring in an ESA as part of making a reasonable adjustment to accommodate their disability. The Equality Act 2010 sets out a strict definition of ‘disability,’ and the reasonable adjustments an employer is required to make will be specific to the individual and assessed on a case-by-case basis,” Johnston said. “An employer may face a disability discrimination claim if they fail to allow an ESA, which would help a disabled employee, without a reasonable justification.”
In addition, if the U.K. Employment Tribunal found that the employee was disabled, that the presence of the employee’s animal would have made a material positive difference for them, and that the ESA was something that could have been allowed, then the employer would potentially be liable under existing disability legislation for its failure to make reasonable adjustments, Whincup said.
Benefits of ESAs for Employers
There can be benefits for companies that carefully choose to allow ESAs. For example, prospective employees could be swayed by an animal-friendly workplace policy.
“Having a standout ESA policy could help set an employer apart and assist in improving their employees’ overall experience,” Johnston said, noting that other options are available as well: “If employers are not able to or are uncomfortable with implementing a full ESA policy, they could look at other, more temporary measures, such as having one-off pet days or animal-orientated events.”
Generally, whether to allow ESAs in the workplace should be determined on a case-by-case basis.
Until more specific legislation or case law takes effect, U.K. employers should weigh all the factors and make sure they have clear guidelines for themselves and their employees with regard to ESAs. “Employers should, first and foremost, ensure they have a policy in place that deals with all of the above,” Johnston said.
Katie Nadworny is a freelance writer in Istanbul.