Nature can enhance the way we think and feel, so why not welcome its grace and cheer into our home offices?
Many people have been forced to work from home because of the never-ending pandemic. Work from home offers flexibility and saves precious time, but the blurring of professional and personal lives also carries the risk of burnout and stress.
In these trying conditions, we should make a conscious effort to make our work from home (WFH) experience as healthy and pleasant as possible. One way of doing this is by reaching out for nature's generous gifts.
Why is nature good for mental health?
Intuitively, many of us believe that nature heals. Ancient cultures throughout the world have worshipped nature, with deep appreciation for its life-giving characteristics. And we continue to fondly regard her as Mother Nature because she still evokes thoughts and ideas of nurture.
Psychological studies are now reaffirming our beliefs about nature’s healing potential. Since the 1980s, a growing body of research has demonstrated nature’s ability to enhance our mental health. There is now a convincing amount of scientific evidence to show that exposure to nature reduces our stress hormones, lowers our blood pressure, and calms our overactive fight-or-flight response system. It also uplifts our mood, lessens our symptoms of depression, and helps us sleep better.
Time spent in nature can also help us recover from mental fatigue. When we concentrate on work tasks, our attention competes with distractions that manifest in countless forms, such as email notifications, social media and multiple internet browser tabs. This juggling act demands a great deal of cognitive effort, but unfortunately our ability to focus on a particular task is finite. At some point, our attention wears off. When we are in nature, our cognitive demands reduce, creating space for our attentional facilities to recharge and rebound.
A leading theory is that our health benefits from nature, and suffers when disconnected from nature, because we are inherently connected to the living world. Humans have evolved over millions of years in the natural environment, so we are programmed to feel good when exposed to nature.
The research undertaken so far has been influential in diverse and fascinating ways. With increasing acceptance of nature’s healing qualities, cities and buildings are now being designed to incorporate more nature. Workplaces are being designed to feature more environmental elements, such as natural light, views of nature, indoor plants, raw materials and natural patterns. Hospitals are utilising nature, or images of nature, to calm patients and accelerate their healing.
Some countries have taken a leap and introduced green (or nature) prescriptions, where doctors instruct patients to regularly spend a certain amount of time in natural settings. In 2020, as the prevalence of mental illness skyrocketed, the UK Government committed £5.7 million to a green social prescribing program. The aim of the two-year pilot program is to improve mental health outcomes through contact with nature. The ground-breaking scheme is also intended to ease demand on the country’s health and social care systems, and reduce health inequalities.
If all that doesn’t give us enough inspiration to look outside our windows, then studies also suggest that interaction with nature makes us more creative and productive. There’s even evidence to suggest that the colour green — a colour we commonly associate with nature — tends to enhance our creativity.
These findings may not come as a surprise to many. But it is one thing to know and appreciate these benefits of nature, and another to apply the knowledge in our lives. So here are a few simple ways in which we can incorporate nature into our WFH setup.
Face the window
Position your desk so that you have a view of the window, and allow yourself to be distracted by the trees and wildlife outside.
In an office, we tend to prefer workstations with window views. There is more happening here than simply pleasing the eyes. Studies consistently show that employees with a window view are less likely to feel stressed or anxious. The benefits of looking out the window are even greater when the views are of natural elements rather than buildings. Even views of green grass can uplift our mood.
Windows also let in natural light — another contributor to our wellbeing. Work from home allows us to reap the benefits of this underrated resource, as we’re usually stuck with artificial lighting in office environments. Surveys have found that employees who work in natural light are less likely to feel depressed or anxious. They are also more likely to be satisfied with their jobs.
Beware that the harsh sun can create a scorching and unpleasant working environment. It is wise to install some kind of shade so that you can regulate the temperature in the room.
Place indoor plants around you
Like offices that offer window views, buildings that have indoor plants tend to be more popular among workers. Several studies have shown that indoor plants in workplace settings increase positive feelings and reduce negative feelings. Again, surveys have found greater job satisfaction where workplaces have indoor plants.
Indoor plants also improve air quality by getting rid of some pollutants and increasing oxygen levels — a healthy bonus.
Decorate the room with nature photos or paintings.
Numerous studies have shown that nature art can improve our cognitive functions and mood, while also reducing stress. A large number of studies have even experimented with hospital waiting rooms, finding that aggression levels reduce when landscape photos are displayed.
Fortunately, in the era of smart phones, most of us will have captured beautiful scenes that bring about good memories. They can easily be turned into good quality prints or canvasses at Officeworks, or by using one of the many online print services available today.
Take a break outdoors
It’s easy to get carried away with work, but most people will understand from experience the value of rest breaks.
But some breaks are more restorative than others. One study compared the stress levels of office workers who took a 10-minute break indoors with those who went outside and focused their attention on elements of nature (eg clouds, leaves, birds, grass etc). While both groups reported lower stress levels over a 4-week period, the positive effects were significantly greater for those who wandered outside.
Even micro-breaks —as little as 40 seconds — in nature could improve your mood and your performance at work, according to some research. So take your coffee outside when the weather permits.
The overwhelming research on the mental health benefits of Mother Nature can make us wonder why we don’t seek to integrate more of her expressions in our daily lives.
By making some simple changes, we can easily welcome the gifts of nature into our WFH setup. The actions may feel insignificant, or perhaps indulgent, but the best way to confirm nature’s healing abilities is to test the science on ourselves.
Revered monk Thich Nhat Hanh described the value of nature perfectly when he said:
People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don’t even recognise: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child — our own two eyes. All is a miracle.
Note: This post was drafted while watching off-season lavenders dance in the gentle breeze, listening-in on the gossips of chirpy sparrows, and basking in the warmth of the winter sun.