With many of us either working from home or spending more time at home during the pandemic, we’ve had more opportunities to get out in nature and a renewed interest in the natural world.
Indeed, connection with nature was cited by many as the most helpful antidote to the ongoing stress and uncertainty caused by COVID-19, with 45% of people surveyed by the Mental Health Foundation reporting that being in green spaces was vital to mental wellbeing.
The power of nature is well documented – many research studies consistently report wide-ranging benefits for mental and physical wellbeing.
Incorporating nature into the workplace is linked to increased productivity, improved concentration and decreased anxiety and fatigue. Simply having a view of nature can speed up healing for hospital patients, improve student test scores, and reduce stress and aggressive behaviour.
Nature might also make us nicer – to others and the planet – as it’s been found that watching films about nature makes people more kind and cooperative, and leads to more environmentally friendly choices. And nature can even help to buffer the effects of loneliness or social isolation – when people with low social connections also have high levels of nearby nature, they report high levels of wellbeing.
Why is nature so good for us?
There are several interesting theories:
- Biophilia theory: This argues that since our ancestors evolved in wild settings, relying on the environment for survival, we have a deep-rooted desire to connect with nature.
- Stress reduction theory: This suggests that spending time in nature triggers physiological responses that lowers stress levels.
- Attention restoration: This implies that paying attention in busy working environments such as offices and cities is mentally taxing, requiring us to use a great deal of attention. Nature offers a break from this as we use attention in a much broader way in natural environments, so less effort is required.
The reason that nature nurtures our physical and emotional wellbeing is likely to be due to a combination of all three factors: we’re wired to love nature, it reduces stress physiologically and it restores our attention.
5 ways to harness the power of nature at work
As lockdown restrictions continue to ease, you may soon be heading back into the office or adopting hybrid working. Wherever you work, here are 5 tips for cultivating the healing benefits of the natural world, backed by research.
Bring the outside in
Whether you add more greenery to your workspace, or start growing your own herbs on a windowsill, plants in the workspace can have a range of positive effects. Employees were found to be 15% more productive when workplaces were filled with just a few houseplants.
Significant mental health benefits are also associated with bringing the outside in, including a 37% reduction in tension and anxiety, a 58% reduction in depression or dejection, a 44% decrease in anger and hostility, and a 38% reduction in fatigue.
The introduction of plants to one office was linked to a 25% decrease in symptoms of ill health, including fatigue, concentration problems, dry skin and irritation of the nose and eyes.
If you struggle to keep plants alive, don’t fret – it’s been found that simply looking at images of nature is enough to lower stress levels. So if you find it difficult to access the outside directly, having pictures of nature in your workspace or setting them as your desktop background or screensaver can also improve mental health.
Create an indoor oasis
Not only the sights, but the sounds of nature can have positive effects. It was found that crickets chirping and waves crashing leads to improved performance and increased happiness compared to listening to traffic and the clatter of a busy café.
Natural scents can play a role too. Conifers emit oils and compounds to protect themselves from microbes and pathogens – these ‘phytoncides’ are also good for us, with studies showing that breathing in forest air boosts the functioning of our immune system. Interestingly certain wood ‘essential oils’ are also known to deliver these benefits.
Perhaps consider playing nature sounds in your office, or using wood essential oils – allergy permitting – to add to the outdoor atmosphere.
Get your daily dose of green or blue space
Access to green spaces such as parks, gardens, fields and woods is linked to improved mood and mental functioning, increased life satisfaction, better physical health including lower blood pressure and enhanced immune function, and a reduced risk of mental health problems. Positive effects on mental health have also been found with exposure to blue spaces, such as rivers, lakes and seas.
But how much nature should we be getting? There’s evidence that the most effective dose of nature is 120 minutes a week – that’s just under 20 minutes a day. So make sure you take a break from the office to visit your local park or a walk along your nearest river.
If you’re based in a city, this might be trickier, so keep on the lookout for those natural oases, such as that small churchyard you’d overlooked or that bench under a tree you hadn’t noticed before.
Immerse yourself in nature
We can all learn from the Japanese concept of shinrin-yoku, or ‘forest bathing’, which involves immersing yourself in nature in a mindful way, using your senses.
Since the 80s, researchers have been studying the therapeutic effects of forest medicine and have found countless healing benefits. Shinrin-yoku is now a standard practice in Japan for managing stress, depression and anxiety.
So while you’re in your local green or blue space, try to use mindfulness to really absorb the experience, noticing what you can see, hear and smell. Breathe in the fresh air. Maybe you even take your shoes off and feel the grass under your feet.
The power of pets
There was a staggering rise in pet ownership during the pandemic with research suggesting 3.2 million households in the UK acquired a pet since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, with 74% of new pet owners claiming their pets helped them with their mental health.
This is unsurprising given studies that show people who have a pet have healthier hearts, are sick less often, make fewer visits to the doctor, get more exercise, and are less depressed. Pets can also have calming effects – simply stroking, being close to or playing with a pet can reduce feelings of distress, slow the heart, reduce blood pressure and reduce muscle tension.
Pet-friendly workplaces are, however, becoming more common, and research has shown they increase morale and employee satisfaction as well as provide stress relief. So if you already have a pet and your company allows you to bring it to the workplace, why not make the most of their healing nature at work?
And if you’re considering getting a pet for these reasons, think about whether you’ll have enough time to care for it, especially if you’re heading back into the office in the near future.
There’s a wealth of evidence showing nature has benefits for both physical and psychological wellbeing. From transforming your workspace into a natural oasis, to listening to the birds on your lunch break in the park, to looking out for local green spaces, how will you #ThinkNaturally during Mental Health Awareness Week?
We’ve put together a handy Nature Spotting worksheet to help you track and reflect on your time in nature.
If you’d like some extra help with your mental health, we provide a range of emotional wellbeing support, from enhancement and prevention to treatment, for individuals, teams and organisations.
Last updated Tuesday 4 May 2021
First published on Tuesday 4 May 2021