The pandemic has shown us how nature boosts wellbeing and motivated employers to find creative ways of bringing it into the workplace.
We are quite used to there being some form of restrictions on daily life now, to safeguard against the COVID-19 virus. But, in the very first national lockdown we were shocked to have our time outdoors suddenly limited. A casual walk was permitted just once a day.
Instinctively, most of us decided we wanted our short time outside to be in a green space rather than by roads and buildings. Across the UK, the number of parks visits went up significantly, with some parks seeing a five-fold increase in visitors.
Not only did we gravitate towards the outdoors, but we even brought more components of nature into our homes, with many of us buying indoor plants. In fact, Google searches for ‘easy to care for plants’ have risen 2,600% since the pandemic begun!
Nature, and its benefits, certainly did capture the nation’s attention.
And fittingly, the theme chosen for last year’s Mental Health Awareness Week was Nature and the Environment. There is strong evidence on the positive impact that nature has on mental health. Several studies have shown regular nature visits can reduce overall rates of depression, improve productivity, and relieve stress in the population. All this just from spending time in natural environments.
So great are the benefits, that the NHS have begun including time in nature in their social prescribing treatment for physical and mental health conditions. The programme, which has been gaining popularity, is designed to help patients by considering other types of medicine alternate to pharmaceutical interventions.
In some parts of the world getting out into the fresh air and spending time in green spaces for wellbeing is nothing new. Japan for example, has recognised the health benefits of what they term forest bathing for some time, and it is even part of their national health programme. Likewise, in 2016 Finland’s tourism board launched its Finrelax programme to encourage visitors to spend time outdoors in nature, rather than focusing on the nightlife. Their aim being to help their guests recover from stress and lift their mood.
Companies too have been taking an interest in the ways that nature can improve health and wellbeing.
As our understanding of workplace wellbeing has become more sophisticated, many businesses have extended the range of their strategies to include aspects that address wellbeing in different ways.
There is an increasing interest in biophilia which stresses the psychological benefits of connection with nature. Since the pandemic, curiosity in it has grown further, chiefly because with a predominantly home-based population, businesses were needing to deliver wellbeing interventions digitally. And although there are many benefits to virtual services, like accessibility, they can also worsen techno stress. Whereas spending time in nature to boost wellbeing comes with no downside and no screen time.
Simply being exposed to daylight is proven to strengthen the body’s circadian rhythm and sleep quality. And improved sleep quality has a strong correlation with good mental health, which boosts workplace productivity.
With research demonstrating that biophilic environments reduce stress and anxiety, a number of companies have been designing workspaces that infuse the elements of nature, such as light, earth or water into the office building. This approach could involve bringing the outside elements in through natural light or plants, or incorporating them via colour, imagery or through the materials used. Of course, re-designing or moving to an office space in a more natural environment will not be an option available for every company.
Instead, some have been taking their employees into nature, to help both the individuals and the organisation reap the rewards.
One such employer is Toyota who have been incredibly creative with their office grounds. They have constructed an allotment site at their headquarters, by using old desk bins and pallets to grow vegetables, herbs and flowers sustainably. The employees are exposed to fresh air, natural light and get to work with the earth. Furthermore, the produce grown by staff, is used in the menu for the building’s café and restaurant. The money raised, is then donated to Toyota’s corporate charity, the Motor Neurone Disease Association.
Other organisations have taken a different approach and re-thought how they spend their team days. These are times, when co-workers come together to complete a non-work related task, to foster better relationships and learn to work better as a group. Some have taken their staff into nature for activities like tree planting, and in doing so, combined the benefits of social connection, physical movement and time spent in a natural environment.
Changes like this may sound simple, but small actions make a big difference. Especially with mental health issues expected to continue rising and government investment into prevention diminishing, bringing nature into the workplace is a logical and straightforward way to boost employee wellbeing.
We are not suddenly going to start setting up desks in the forest, imagine trying to connect to Wi-Fi! But there are simple things teams can do to re-integrate the natural elements into the working space.
What can teams do?
Bring the outdoors and meetings together – identify the discussions that don’t require screens and that can be done well over audio. Encourage the attendees to get out into green spaces for these meetings, whether that be sitting in the garden or walking in the woods. Reflect whether you and your colleagues notice a difference.
Introduce community plants – the move to hot desking has prevented people from having their own desk plant, that they would normally have cared for and enjoyed. As an alternative, create a collection of plants for different sections of the office. Designate them to the team working in that area, perhaps even involving them in selecting and naming the plants. As a bonus, this will cultivate a sense of community in the office too.
Insert new elements of nature into the workspace – note which of the elements are already present in your office, recognise what is missing and how you can intertwine them with the office space. This could be as simple as having images of the outdoors or using colours that represent nature.
The Bank Workers Charity website contains a range of material and interactive tools to support wellbeing.