Connecting to nature at work – how can it help your business?
For the last few years, forest bathing has commonly featured in the top ten wellness trends; but what is it and what place does nature have in the workplace? In this post, Nature Connection Guide and ACC Executive Coach, Sam Wright, unpacks these questions, explains the benefits to companies and their employees, and offers some tips on how you and your organisations might routinely engage with nature around you even during a working day.
8 minutes to read
What is nature connection and forest bathing?
Many of us recognise that we feel better when we have spent some time outside within nature. This knowing has become more apparent during the last couple of years, living through a global pandemic. Trips to nature areas are increasing, as is social media coverage educating people about the many benefits and posts where people take a moment to ‘appreciate’ their gardens or local green spaces. So, what is forest bathing? Do you need a forest? Are you taking a bath in nature? These are some of the common questions I get asked.
Let me first reassure you that no baths are involved, and you can keep your clothes on! In fact, some of the practices can be done in the workplace, as I’ll explain later.
Forest bathing is essentially the practice of slowing down and engaging our senses by immersing ourselves in our natural surroundings. This is something which is accessible
to all, no matter whether it’s in your garden, looking out of an office window, walking
through an urban park, or wandering through a wood or a forest.
You and your employees can learn some techniques and go by yourself or be led by a trained nature-connection guide who will take you through a series of sensory invitations, enabling you to connect, in the present moment, with yourself and your natural surroundings.
Inspired by the Japanese practice of Shinrin-Yoku (which translates to ‘forest bathing’),
it’s a powerful way to relax and unwind – and it’s known to have far-reaching benefits for health and wellbeing which we will explore in a moment.
Isn’t this just a nice walk?
It’s true, there are many benefits to hiking, walking the dog and exercising in nature, but forest bathing is not a goal-orientated task. It’s a connection-based practice, and research has shown that the sense of wellbeing achieved is primarily driven by the connection with nature and not necessarily related to the actual length of time spent ‘doing something’ in nature. One of the challenges for many of us is slowing down enough to fully immerse ourselves in the moment. We are experts at living life at full pace and the thought of deceleration is enough to make many of us feel uneasy. That’s why being led by a guide really helps ease this transition so we can gradually adjust our state of being. In this transition, we are aiding our nervous system to move from fight-or-fight to the rest-and-digest mode, which allows for mental and physical restoration and healing.
Often a guided nature immersion session might last for a couple of hours. If this is during
the working day, it relies on companies seeing the benefit to their employees, to support
some time out. Thankfully, we’re seeing more companies adopting more flexible working practices to allow people to manage their wellbeing proactively. The research shows that stepping away from the screen into a natural environment allows the frontal areas of our brain, which suffers from mental fatigue, a chance to restore. So, companies can benefit from improved staff wellbeing and productivity if they encourage this behaviour.
Another option is to include a nature-connection immersion session if you’re running off-
site projects or meetings. By experiencing presence within nature during breaks, we can
significantly improve our productivity, creativity, and clarity as well as our memory
function. This in turn will energise employees during the meeting leading to more interactivity, engagement, and successful outcomes.
What can you do to connect with nature in the workplace and how will it help?
Firstly, it will help to offer some background here. We are becoming more and more
disconnected from nature and by doing so we are compromising our own long-term health and wellbeing and that of the planet. Our lives are getting busier and noisier and by 2050, 9.5 billion of us will be living in cities. 1
As a species, we have spent most of our time on the planet, outside. Our brains and
bodies have evolved alongside nature and as a result we are deeply connected to the natural world. It is only in recent times that we have begun to rapidly move inside, become more sedentary and increasingly disconnected and as yet, we’re not designed to cope well with our ‘new’ habits and habitats. So much so that we often remain unaware of their impact on us. That’s where nature can help us remember.
There are several ways to assist your employees’ wellbeing by introducing more opportunity for nature-connection throughout the working day, at home or in the office. It only takes a few moments to invite in some key benefits.
Here are five ideas to get you started:
1. Green the scene
One option is to bring nature into the workplace – onto the desk, office, communal areas, and meeting rooms. Simple ways like placing some plants nearby or small desk pots which can be nurtured with very little work. Plants like Snake Plant, Spider Plant, Peace Lily or Jasmine and Bamboo are great at cleaning the air of toxins and offering the eyes a natural break. Some studies suggest you can improve productivity by 15% with just a few pot plants nearby. 2
On a much larger scale, global corporations such as Google HQ have been investing since 2017 in an immersive space series, offering employees the opportunity to step away and connect with their body senses to aid rest and encourage natural mind wandering. Other organisations are adopting a biophilic design approach to wellbeing, using living green walls, intuitive lighting, and restorative soundscapes; with wellbeing areas created with natural materials and roof top sensory gardens for reconnection and restoration during the working day.
2. Room with a view
Looking to use what is already there? This can be achieved by actively encouraging employees to take a moment to move around during their working day, breaking up their screen use by simply taking a moment by a window. Having nature around us and having access to windows with a view onto a green space, has been shown to boost mood, positive thoughts, and creativity, and reduce tension and anxiety as well as mental fatigue. Some research suggest that it can take as little as 40 seconds of looking out at a natural setting to help us stay more focussed and alert, and the colour green helps enhance our creative performance.3
Being more intentional with our nature-connection practice, be it outside, through a window, or by observing in more detail the office pot plants, taking the time to notice the patterns and shapes goes a long way to help us with our overall wellbeing. Just by looking at natural patterns (fractals) such as ripples on water, veins on a leaf, branches, or cloud formations, has been shown to reduce our stress by as much as 60%.4
3. Tune in
Actively educating employees to the benefits on offer with achievable and bite-sized ideas, invites employees to take a more proactive role in their own wellbeing management. One very accessible idea is listening to sounds of nature while working at home or perhaps during the daily commute or providing it within the communal areas at work – be that water flowing, the ocean waves, rain falling, birdsong, or the wind through the trees. Studies have shown natural sounds help turn our focus outwards and enable us to relax, improving our performance in cognitive tests and boosting memory. While artificial sounds focus our attention inwards leading to more worry and brooding.5
4. Unplug to remember
Many employees might believe they don’t have the time or perhaps feel they are not able to go for a daily walk with their work demands ever increasing. When thinking about your organisation what can be implemented to actively embed new beneficial behaviours to support positive wellbeing?
Time is the key barrier, and often employees believe they have none to spare. As leaders of organisations there is an opportunity to help employees make time. If available, is there is an opportunity to use any natural space surrounding office locations by creating lunch time walking groups? Perhaps those employees who are ‘step counters’ can benefit from company designed circuits which offer the extra couple of thousand steps to help them achieve their daily goal? There are many ways to assist employees to design and implement some natural boundaries into their day, for example by switching phones to ‘do not disturb’ for their walk. Studies have compared people walking in a park to those who walk in the park while taking a long phone conversation at the same time. Those just walking receive the greatest benefit to memory function, as they are offering their brain a more complete rest.6 Enabling them to return to the office refreshed, with new perspective and ready to engage.
5. Zen in Ten
This next idea is relevant to all of us as leaders in business. How often do employees feel uptight at work? Or experience a difficult conversation leaving them feeling stressed? Obviously, there is much at play during these scenarios but often it’s the simplest of techniques that bring us back to the present with some perspective gained. Research has found that by taking ten minutes out to look at scenes of nature aids relaxation and improves cognitive performance. 7,8,9
By allowing personal screen savers or easily accessible photo albums/videos of times spent in nature, or by having natural scenes on office walls or pictures on desks or by offering areas within buildings where employees can seek ‘active’ time out can aid recovery. And perhaps if there are difficult conversations, look to encourage new behaviours by taking the conversation outside, into the elements where insight, truth, objectivity, and openness feel naturally more accessible. It is easy to skip over novel approaches such as these, but consider the limited effort needed to experiment with them verses the long-term implications to businesses of stressed, unfulfilled, or demotivated employees.
Real benefits can be achieved with very little effort, but the practice of slowing down, connecting-in and noticing nature takes consistency and persistence and people need to understand why first. The most successful and progressive companies are engaging in these practices to support the wellbeing, mental health, and productivity of their employees. It’s the micro-moments that we can all achieve, welcoming in a moment of curious wonder and perspective. Inviting our nervous systems to calm, affording us more choice of response in our ever-busy worlds.
Where can I learn more?
If you want to find out more about Sam Wright and Natural Edge Coaching have a
wander through the Natural Edge website where there are freebie nature- connection videos, meditation and reading lists as well as a free e-book with more research.
About the author
Sam is an ACC Executive Coach and Nature Connection Guide who’s passionate about coaching professionals beyond the ‘what ifs’ through powerful conversation, and in partnership with nature. She often invites clients to step outside into nature, whether it’s within a rural or urban setting. Sam believes that by immersing ourselves in a natural environment opens the senses and widens perspective, enabling clients to reach deeper insight quickly.
Sam regularly offers talks and nature connection for wellbeing programs for the public and private sectors and was one of the three shortlisted finalists for Best Nature Based Social Prescribing Project 2022.
1: United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs: United Nations. 2018
Revision of worldwide urbanisation prospects.
2: Nieuwenhuis, M., Knight, C., Postmes, T., & Haslam, S. A. (2014). The relative
benefits of green versus lean office space: Three field experiments. Journal of
Experimental Psychology: Applied, 20(3), 199-214.
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Tyrvainen L, Kagawa T, Miyazaki Y. Influence of forest therapy on cardiovascular relaxation in young adults. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative
Medicine, Vol 2014.
4: Taylor R, Fractal patterns in pature are aesthetically pleasing and stress-reducing. March 31, 2017.
5: Gould van Praag, Cassandra D, Garfinkel SN, Sparasci O, Mees A, Philippides AO, Ware M, Ottaviani C, Critchley HD. Mind-wandering, and alterations to default mode network connectivity when listening to naturalistic versus artificial sounds. Scientific Reports &, Article number 45273 (2017)
6: Berman MG, Jonides J, Kaplan S. The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting with
Nature. Psychological Science 2008 19: 1207
7: Brown K.D, Barton J.L, Gladwell V, F. Viewing Nature Scenes Positivity Affects
Recovery of Autonomic Function Following Acute-Mental Stress. Environ Sci Technol. 2013 June4: 47 (11): 5562-5569
8: Ulrich, R.S., Simons, R.F., Losito, BD., Fiorito, E., Miles, M.A., & Zelson, M (1991). Stress recovery during exposure to natural and urban environments. J Environ Psychol, 11, 201-30
9: Golding ES, Gatersleben B, Cropley M. An Experimental Exploration of the Effects
of Exposure to Images of Nature on Rumination. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2018 Feb; 15 (2):300
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