It’s official, the majority of us are now completely separated from the natural world. In fact, the problem is so bad that recent research has shown that almost 62% of workers in the United Kingdom only spend an average of 30 minutes outdoors each day.
But what impact is this concerning trend actually having on our workforce’s physical and mental health, and what steps can we take to rectify the issue?
Sick building syndrome is on the rise. It can be defined as “a condition in which people suffer from symptoms of illness or become infected with chronic disease from the building in which they work or reside“. It usually occurs in offices but can affect other buildings too. Common symptoms include headaches, dry/itchy skin, sore throat, coughing, tiredness, difficulty concentrating, blocked or runny nose, and sore eyes.
There isn’t a single, known cause for the syndrome but the NHS suggests that it could be triggered by a combination of poor ventilation, bright & flickering lights, dust & fumes in the air, poor cleaning, and excessively crowded desk areas.
Plants & natural elements can play a large role in rectifying this issue as they help to purify the air. NASA conducted a study in the 1990s into a selection of common plants to test whether they were capable of removing a range of dangerous toxins and pollutants including Benzene, Formaldehyde, and Carbon Dioxide from indoor spaces. They uncovered a range of 19 common indoor plants that could remove up to 87% of pollutants in just 24 hours – clearly demonstrating how introducing plants can be a crucial step to improving the health of your employees.
Further research from the Agricultural University of Norway has also demonstrated that the introduction of plants can help to reduce coughing by 38%, sore throats by 11%, itchy/irritated eyes by 15%, and dry skin by 21%. This, in turn, resulted in a decrease in sick leave from around 15% to 5% in the time period from when the plants were introduced.
This is likely attributable to the humidifying effects of plants. Dry air is one of the leading causes of a large proportion of these symptoms so the increased humidity derived from plants goes a long way to alleviate these persistent symptoms that building occupants can face.
Awareness of the importance of mental health has never been so high. The large majority of organisations are proactive and driven to prioritise the mental health of their employees but struggle to know where to invest to make a real difference.
One of the best places to start is analysing what research from experts in the field seems to point to. A study by the TKF foundation comparing household medical records and natural amenities found that residents who were further in proximity to nature and therefore less likely to immerse themselves in it – were at a 25% greater risk of depression alongside a 30% greater risk of encountering anxiety disorders. Furthermore, a study in the Scientific Reports Journal found that those who spent 2 hours a week or more in nature reported much higher levels of wellbeing.
Beyond just depression and anxiety – a study from the journal Frontiers of Psychology found that spending just 20 minutes connecting with nature can help lower stress hormone levels. Another study from the journal Psychiatry Research found that immersion in nature can also help reduce symptoms of PTSD.
All of this evidence clearly points to the powerful effect that nature can have on the mental health of our workforce and provides irrefutable evidence that it shouldn’t be ignored.
How you can get started
The majority of the aforementioned research has been focused on indoor plants and encouraging employees to immerse themselves in nature more frequently, therefore it only makes sense that the best way to reap the demonstrated benefits is to align your wellbeing plan as closely as possible to the practices at the centre of the research.
Introducing indoor plants is a fairly cost-effective, easy, and self-explanatory step but uncovering the best way to get your employees into the great outdoors more without disrupting their schedule and adding to their stress levels is slightly more complicated.
There are multiple ways to encourage your employees to spend more time in the great outdoors. One of the most common ways is to ensure all team-building activities are also outdoor activities. Alternatively, introducing charity days where you and your team volunteer for environmental or landscaping projects can be a great way to immerse yourselves in nature whilst also giving back to your local community and generating some positive PR.
For those of us who are lucky enough to have offices close to nature trails, organising lunchtime team walks can also be a great way to invigorate and revitalise your team. For those who aren’t – subsidising passes to national parks and creating employee discount schemes for outdoor activities can be a fantastic way to encourage an affinity for nature amongst your workforce.
To be honest, though, there isn’t a perfect, one size fits all method for every organisation and it will likely be a procedure of trial and error to work out what fits your employees & culture. Luckily though there are hundreds of existing avenues to explore and unlimited scope for creativity. So hopefully, getting out into nature will feel like second nature.