Is exposing employees to nature the key to employee wellbeing and higher productivity?

The Good Life Project hopes to demonstrate the restorative benefits of natural environments and encourage wider corporate responsibility for employee wellbeing. Photo: Noel O'Reilly
The Good Life Project hopes to demonstrate the restorative benefits of natural environments and encourage wider corporate responsibility for employee wellbeing. Photo: Noel O'Reilly

A new project is working with employers to measure the impact that exposure to the natural environment has on employee wellbeing and productivity. Project leader Jez Rose explains how the initiative has come about.

Over the past five years, I have been increasingly involved in advising on and assisting in developing culture change projects. Organisations are more aware than ever of the impact of environment on our behaviour and, in turn, our productivity and wellbeing.

The scientific interest, studies and research into the effect of nature on wellbeing has received much international academic attention from the likes of the American Psychological Association and Cornell and Stanford Universities. One key study often cited found that office workers with a view of nature liked their jobs more, enjoyed better health and reported greater life satisfaction. It may seem overly simplistic, but the scientific evidence is irrefutable and has been mounting since the 1970s, when psychologists first became interested in the influence of restorative environments.

Businesses are invited to take part in The Good Life project

The study, which is endorsed by The Soil Association, is looking at how to improve employee wellbeing by trying out a range of workplace initiatives based around the natural environment to see how they affect an employee’s feeling of wellbeing. The Good Life is inviting businesses who would like to be involved  to get in touch. For more information and to enrol, please visit the website.

Evidence-based studies, such as MacKerron and Mourato (2013), have demonstrated that happy people are more productive and that nature is not only hugely beneficial to wellbeing but actually promotes it. Yet, despite the body of evidence supporting the benefits of exposure to nature, many organisations still, for example, prohibit personalising desks and the presence of plants – two easy things that can have remarkable, positive effects.

Keeping it simple is key – all too often organisations believe that to achieve positive, efficacious culture change they must seek advanced, complex and inevitably expensive consultation and physical changes. It is perhaps telling then that creating environments where people can thrive, do their job well and experience high self-worth and feel valued is the foundation to all successful culture change projects.

New project researching nature and employee wellbeing

I have the role as faculty lead for a new research project, which is testimony to this. The Good Life Project, supported by the Soil Association and celebrities including Kate Humble and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, aims to prove the effect nature has on our health and happiness in the workplace.

Nature has a remarkable impact on people. Another commonly cited example from the PhD study results of Ulrich (1984), demonstrated that patients recovering from abdominal surgery who had views of trees recovered quicker and with less complications and medicinal requirements than those patients whose rooms overlooked brick walls.

Some of the many recorded benefits of merely being in the presence of, or simply being able to see, nature include reductions in stress, anger and exhaustion, while increasing energy levels, cognitive functioning and happiness.

Through a range of interventions and using participating businesses, the Good Life Project hopes to not only demonstrate the efficacy and restorative benefits of natural environments, but to encourage wider corporate responsibility in this area.

Our research into the cognitive and emotional impact of nature in the working environment aims to provide real-world, evidence-based suggestions for how organisations can achieve this with the most simple and cost-effective strategies.

The existing research indicates that if organisations were to simply reposition work spaces to maximise existing natural views, this could lead to a positive correlation.

As a society, we are becoming ever more interconnected by technological advances, exacerbating social, political, religious, economic, industrial and educational factions. Shockingly, according to research conducted by Persil, 75% of children in the UK spend less time outside than prison inmates.

Much of the academic research used as a starting point for the Good Life Project suggests that the reduction in stress and anxiety and simultaneous increase in wellbeing, happiness and confidence from seeing nature is caused by nature’s ability to stimulate the production of feel-good neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin.

However, it is not that simple – other considerations are nature’s colour and light, which appear to have a calming effect on the brain, and its lack of repetitive symmetry. The correlative impact of nature reducing stress is that it has positive benefits for mental health issues, too.

The research project will also explore considerations such as the impact of natural sounds and smells on employees’ wellbeing and effectiveness.

If we are able to discover the precise level of contact or interaction with nature required to be happier and, in turn, healthier and more productive, the Good Life Project could be the most cost-effective way of creating a high-performance culture within organisations, literally saving industry millions of pounds every year in sick leave and below-average productivity.

Led by a team of psychologists, neuroscientists and a behaviourist, the project will see organisations implementing specific techniques and recording responses to natural stimuli introduced into their work environments, using feedback platforms.

Each month, organisations will record the impact of a wide variety of different interventions, from the placement of naturally scented candles, tending to an office herb garden and arranging workspaces to maximise views, to displaying various sets of posters featuring outdoor scenes and the periodic playing of nature sounds.

Jez Rose is a behaviourist, professional speaker and award-winning author, and faculty lead for new research called the Good Life Project.

References

MacKerron G and Mourato S (2013). “Happiness is greater in natural environments”. Global Environmental Change, vol.23(5), pp.992-1000.

Ulrich R (1984). “View through a window may influence recovery from surgery”. Science, vol.224, pp.420-422.

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