Take a moment to survey your surroundings; chances are you are reading this indoors, surrounded by solid walls. Though you might not feel it, this environment is detrimental to your physical and mental health, as every step out of nature and into the ‘modern’ environment takes a small but gradual toll on our mental and physical health.
Imagine you have just come out of a serious operation. It was successful but you need to spend a few weeks in hospital recovering. Luckily for you, things are quiet and you are offered a choice between two rooms that are identical except for the view out the window:
You would almost certainly pick the view of the green park, and you likely suspect that most people would choose this too.
What you might not know is that people who stay in hospital with a view of nature will recover from their surgery quicker and will take less pain medication during their recovery.
Hopefully you won’t be in a hospital room anytime soon, but chances are you spend a lot of time working from an office that has the former urban view.
If the natural view leads to faster recovery, what positive effects might it be having on our mood, productivity, and general well-being? This article will explore these benefits and the reasons behind them; while you might not be able to change your view from your office window, you can bring the outdoors indoors with plants.
The benefits of bringing plants indoors
Plants have been shown to provide a wide variety of physical and mental health benefits. They are inexpensive and certain species are particularly suited to indoor environments.
Plants improve our general wellbeing. Being in or near nature can improve your attentiveness, feelings of happiness and playfulness, and can lower your stress too. This is why a walk in nature is a great way to recharge on your lunch, and why the Japanese practice shinrin-yoku: ‘forest bathing.’
There is a growing field called ‘horticultural therapy’ that has been shown to increase feelings of wellbeing in people with conditions ranging from depression to dementia by prescribing them plants to look after and keep in their homes and offices.
As mentioned at the beginning of this article, a 2002 review of research on plants in healthcare settings confirmed that people recovering in hospital took less pain medication and were discharged from hospital quicker than those who were not looking at plants during their recovery.
And here is the icing on the cake for HR: people take fewer sick days when there are plants in their workspace, report greater job satisfaction, and report having a higher commitment to their organisation.
Related is the benefit of plants on indoor air quality. We tend to get less oxygen indoors unless we work somewhere with excellent ventilation.
While you would need a large number of plants indoors to match the purifying power of modern air filters, they do slowly work away at removing air pollutant and particulate matter, and they also raise the humidity of indoor rooms to healthier and more comfortable levels. As a bonus, they improve the acoustics of indoor rooms too; relevant if you do any sort of recording or calling at work.
Productivity has been shown to increase when plants are present.
People have quicker reaction times when in a room with plants, an important ability in many types of work. Mental fatigue is lowered as well; try replacing your morning coffee with some time spent in nature (or if you love your coffee too much, try drinking it outdoors).
Students who study in rooms with plants are more attentive and better able to concentrate – be this in a classroom, bedroom, or outdoors on a college campus. It’s important to realize that, while we usually associate the word ‘student’ with college-age youngsters, all knowledge workers are students in some shape or form, and we will all need to upskill and improve as the world around us changes rapidly. A healthy prescription of plants can help you to advance your career, not just help your children to get better grades.
Numerous studies have shown that creativity increases and work-related stress is lowered in the presence of plants – people are better at making creative word associations when plants are present.
The below image from the Momentum Mind Workshops shows that the average time spent indoors by Americans between 1992 and 1994 was 87%; and that is likely to have increased with the rise of COVID-19 and remote working. The bottom line here is that reducing time spent indoors and increasing time spent outdoors is better for our mental and physical health. We can offset the damage done indoors by bringing plants indoors; all you need to do to gain these benefits every single day is to invest some initial time and money in a few potted plants, then keep them alive with a few minutes watering each day. After that the benefits are passive.
Surround yourself with plants
The quick and simple starting point is to buy a couple of small, low-maintenance plants to place on your office desk, and in your home too. Plants need different amounts of water and sunlight; your local store can advise on what plants are suited to the indoors.
Personally, I find watering my plants to be a relaxing start to the day. I have my own plants at my home office, and my local co-working space has a large selection of plants that we’re welcome to take and place on our desks.
Consider running a monthly competition to see who has the ‘Best mini-garden’ in the office. This can be a nice way to encourage people to add plants to their desk, and will result in the office getting greener faster as more people get on board and bring greenery into the office.
Consider creating a ‘plant bank’, a wide variety of plants that employees can take to their desks as they please, as pictured above.
Plants are a great way to brighten up dull meeting rooms, and also bring the added benefits of improving the mental clarity and focus, and reducing the mental fatigue, of everyone in the meeting. As lets be honest; most of us would rather not be in a meeting room, so brightening it up with some greenery is the least we can do!
Consider placing plants around communal areas, entrance ways, etc, around the office. While having a caretaker or janitor tend to the plants is a option, it is better to encourage employees to tend to the plants themselves, perhaps with a rotating schedule.
The Science Behind The Benefits of Plants
The research into why we respond positively to plants is ongoing, but here is the current theory:
The millions of years our ancestors spent on the planet were spent in nature, not in plant-less boxes in huge concrete cities. So it’s not that plants are better for us, rather that a lack of plants is bad for us.
The deeper, instinctual, animal parts of our brain don’t understand that we have transcended surviving in the wilderness. This creates low amounts of long-term stress as these parts of our brain are concerned about the habitat we live in.
Our ancestors depended on their habitat for survival. So we learned to quickly tell the difference between low-risk and high-risk environments. Our brains consider the modern environment high-risk due to
– The lack of trees, specifically climbable trees which allowed our ancestors to escape from predators and to spot prey from above.
– The lack of the colour green; green has been shown to be more calming to us than others like yellow and brown, likely because green is a good indicator of the health of a plant. Green plants meant a possible source of food.
– The lack of species diversity, as a habitat with a broad range of plants and wildlife was likely to be a lower risk habitat than one with a narrow range.
– The lack of fractals, forms with patterns that repeat as they are magnified, such as the branches of trees. Fractals have been shown to lower stress in humans when we look at them.
The smart part of your brain, the part that separates us from other animals, knows that the lack of climbable trees isn’t a problem. But the part of your brain that you do share with other animals is concerned about this, and this causes a small but persistent amount of stress. Our bodies are built to handle short bursts of intense stress (e.g. being chased by a panther), and are not built to handle long bouts of low stress (worrying about the economy, your job, your savings, and your animal brain worrying about the lack of nature).
We simply cannot separate men and women from their environment without causing problems. So – spend more time in nature, both by going out into it, and by bringing it into your home and your workplace. Your mind and body will thank you for it!