Natural approach at work bolsters productivity

Rebecca Weitzel

Think back to the last time you felt truly calm, peaceful and void of stress. Where were you? What did you see? What sounds did you hear?

Odds are you weren’t standing in a busy grocery store line; driving your car through traffic; or, for that matter, sitting in your office staring at your computer screen. More likely, you were enjoying a natural setting of some kind — hiking in the forest, soaking up the sun by the ocean, walking the dog in the park, napping in a hammock in the backyard or even sitting near a window overlooking the trees or taking in a view of the mountains.

Research confirms our intuition: Our environment affects our stress levels, mood and overall well-being. Unpleasant environments
trigger anxiety, helplessness, nervousness, poor immune function and sadness. Pleasant environments, including the great outdoors, reverse such effects. One study found that 95 percent of participants reported less anxiety and stress and improved mood in a natural environment. Moreover, it seems nature can improve our mental capacity. A study conducted by David Strayer at the University of Utah demonstrated a 50 percent improvement on creative problem-solving tasks after participants spent three days backpacking in the mountains.

Strayer theorized the brain’s executive center — the prefrontal cortex — has to recover much like an overworked muscle. In a natural setting, the brain experiences far fewer inputs, giving it a chance to rest. Mounting research confirms this rest period is essential to our mental health and ability to perform our best.

It follows that organizations that want to cultivate a healthy, productive and more resilient work force should find ways to improve work environments and increase employee contact with nature. Such environmental improvements don’t have to mean an overhaul of your office space. In fact, one study of the power of natural elements in the workplace showed that even small changes produce dramatic positive effects.

Consider integrating some of the following ideas, or some of your own, to bring nature into the office and encourage employees to spend more time recuperating outdoors:

Add more plants. Simply adding flowers, trees and other plants to a work setting has been shown to make people happier and more productive.

Provide more natural light through windows or skylights. Science shows natural light is associated with better mental and physical health compared to the straining flicker of fluorescent lights.

Create a walking path in a park-like setting on company property. One study showed walking in a park helps alleviate the types of negative thoughts associated with a higher risk for depression.

Adopt an office pet. If your employees agree, bring in a trained dog, calm cat, quiet bird or fish and set up a schedule to take turns walking or feeding the pet. Interacting with an animal has been shown to improve mental well-being.

Create outdoor break room spaces. Designate comfortable, quiet, covered areas outside to encourage employees to spend time taking in the sights and sounds of nature during breaks.

Install a decorative fountain in the break room. The sound of running water has been shown to sooth and improve mood.

Place digital screens or photographs depicting nature scenes in hallways or conference rooms. Studies show that even digital depictions of nature improve health.

Schedule regular hikes, bike rides and other outdoor adventures for your staff. Incorporate regular outdoor activities into your wellness offerings. Invite passionate employees to lead the effort or start a club. Embed these activities into your culture.

Choose natural settings for team retreats and company parties. Consider scheduling long meetings, retreats and company celebrations in outdoor settings or remote locations near nature.

Incentivize vacations spent in natural settings. Promote extended time spent in nature by offering discounts or gift cards for outdoor equipment or activities.

Ask employees for their suggestions. If none of these ideas resonate, hold a focus group or conduct a survey to solicit ideas from your team members. They’ll likely offer even better ideas that fit your organizational culture.

Incorporate nature into your work environment and culture. It’s possible the next time your employees are asked when they last felt calm, peaceful and void of stress, they’ll honestly answer, “Yesterday — at work.”