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Think Green for Employee Health: Increasing the Nature Connection

A note for our readers: the views reflected by the authors do not reflect the views of ASPA. 

By Andrea Johnson

Johnson junePeople have an innate need to have a connection with the natural world. Zelenski and Nisbet in “Happiness and Feeling Connected: The Distinct Role of Nature Relatedness,” discuss this need with a scientific theory called “biophilia.” Research suggests that people who spend more time outdoors gain many benefits to the mind and body. In “Creativity in the Wild: Improving Creative Reasoning through Immersion in Natural Settings,”Acthley, Strayer, and Atchley say that people spend less time outdoors connected to nature and more time indoors connected to technology. Many people may only be outside for the time it takes to get from the house to the car and from their car into the front door at work. Others may spend absolutely no time outside during the day if they have a garage at home and a parking garage at work.

If nature connection is an important need for people, can an organization help meet this need in the workplace for its employees? The answer is yes. Various options are available in designing a healthy work environment that incorporates nature. Employers can also encourage the use of the outdoors and nature as part of overall employee wellness or wellness programs. Halachmi and Van der Krogt in The Role of the Manager, part of Steven Condrey’s Handbook of Human Resource Management in Government, discuss that human resource managers play an important role in keeping employees motivated, satisfied and productive.

Using nature in and outside the workplace as an alternative or in addition to traditional wellness programs such as physical fitness and stress reduction programs could prove to benefit the employees and organization as a whole. Incorporating nature in the workplace can be as simple as including natural lighting and window views into building design, adding plants and encouraging employees to get outside for outdoor contact. LEED® certified “green” buildings are often excellent examples of how nature can be incorporated in the workplace.

Natural Lighting and Window Views

Windows and skylights in the workplace can help improve employee health by allowing people to see outside and let in natural light. Organizations can ensure maximum daylight and window views for its employees through building design. In “Entrainment of the Human Circadian Clock to the Natural Light-Dark Cycle,” Wright, Birks, Griffin, Rusterholz, and Chinoy emphasize that a decrease in natural lighting and an increase in electrical light disturbs our biological clock. When our biological clock is disrupted, we experience a number of health related issues. Christopher Bergland reported that disruptions to a person’s circadian rhythm could cause a number of health issues including sleep disorders, obesity and depression.

The World Green Building Council’s “Business Case for Green Building,” summarizes 13 studies that indicate up to an 18 percent increase in individual productivity with increased day lighting. In addition, Heschong Mahone Group Inc. found that workers with more access to window views were 6-25% more productive and had 10-25% better function and memory in their study, “Windows and Offices: A Study of Office Worker Performance in the Indoor Environment.”

Plants in the Workplace

Adding indoor plants is a simple and cost effective way for an organization to incorporate nature into the workplace. Plants not only look nice but have a number of benefits in improving the quality of the work environment. Dr. Roger Ulrich is quoted in an online Greenhouse Product News article saying, “Our research shows that a change as simple as adding flowers and plants can be important to businesses in the modern economy. People’s productivity, in the form of innovation and creative problem-solving, improved.” Productivity however is not the only benefit employees’ gain from plants in the workplace.

Dr. Leonard Perry says that plants reduce stress, increase productivity and help in the goal of keeping employees happy. He summarizes a variety of studies that show plants in the workplace improve productivity by up to 12-15%. Perry goes further to share that plants also help maintain air quality, humidity and air temperature. He also reports that plants help reduce noise and make spaces seem more inviting and relaxing.

Outdoor Contact

Outdoor contact is when people are allowed to get outside and get direct contact with nature. Getting outside is probably the most beneficial type of nature contact workers can receive and maybe the most cost effective for employers. Largo-Wight, Chen, Dodd and Weiler in “Healthy Workplaces: The Effects of Nature Contact at Work on Employees Stress and Health,” report on a study of office workers finding that of all the types of nature contact, outdoor contact was the most beneficial. In a related study titled “Creativity in the Wild: Improving Creative Reasoning through Immersion in Natural Settings,” Atchley, Strayer, and Atchley found that participants who camped and spent time in the wilderness for 4-6 days with no technology showed a 50 percent increase in creativity and problem-solving skills.

Human resource managers can encourage employees to get outside through existing or new walking programs. Walking trails can be created if there is space. If not, a simple sidewalk around the building will do. Outdoor break areas with tables and chairs, benches or picnic tables can be set up for “nature breaks,” lunch breaks, outdoor workspaces or even meetings. Landscaping, potted plants and trees can make these outdoor spaces more inviting.

Green Buildings

Many organizations have incorporated nature into the design of their buildings. Certified LEED® buildings or “green” buildings are excellent examples of increased nature contact in the workplace. The U.S. Green Building Council gives points toward LEED® certification for maximizing green space, day lighting and window views.

Located in Kansas, the Johnson County Government has seven LEED® certified buildings. The Sunset Drive building has the most impressive use of nature in its design. The backside of the building is almost all windows that let in daylight and look out into a natural forested area. In the natural area, there is a walking trail for employees and visitors. Chad Foster of Johnson County facilities shares in a personal interview that many of interior demountable walls in the Sunset Drive building have a glazing on them that allow daylight to flood interior offices. Plants were incorporated into the design of the building and can be found throughout. Foster says that these plants have since been adopted by employees of the Sunset Drive building in order to reduce maintenance costs. Foster emphasizes that day lighting and window views are a strongly valued part of design in Johnson County buildings. He states that even the tornado proof County Communications Center, which is LEED® certified, has windows with tornado proof glazing.

What’s Next?

Human resource managers play a critical role in being the advocate for any agencies greatest resource, its people. By finding new and innovation ways to foster a healthy working environment and improve employee wellness, managers can reduce absenteeism, improve employee retention and increase productivity. Using nature to improve work environment and wellness is one of these innovative approaches. By incorporating natural lighting, window views, plants and ways to get outside, both employees and employers will benefit.

Just remember: If you or your employees need a break, try a “nature break.”


Author: Andrea Johnson is a Park Naturalist for Johnson County Park and Recreation District and a graduate student in the University of Kansas’s School of Public Affairs and Administration. She may be reached at [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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