Nature and mental health

Simon Andrew

08/10/2017
Categories: Wellbeing, Culture

Combating stress is an ongoing challenge. But what if help was at hand, for free, just around the corner?

We’ve all had those days. Nothing is going to plan, the list is getting longer, and everyone needs you for something. The modern workplace puts a lot of pressure on individuals. But there are ways to combat it, without breaking the bank.

I heard the birds

I remember a tough day. Stress levels had been steadily rising. I could feel the veins popping out on my forehead and my responses to colleagues were getting gradually shorter and sharper.

Come midday, I headed out of the office, bought a sandwich and wandered down to the local park. I sat on a bench as I tucked into my BLT and I started to look around. I saw a woman walking her dog – or rather the dog walking her. It was a small black terrier but it was high on life. It was pulling away at the lead, tail wagging, treating everything in its path like a gold-wrapped present.

As the dog passed, I spotted a squirrel. Skipping across the path and onto the tree. Then I heard the birds.

As I sat there, my stress ebbed away, my head cleared, and the challenges of the day fell into place in a matter-of-fact way. I enjoyed sitting there for a good thirty minutes and I made a deal with myself. Never skip lunch again, and embrace this park for the remedy it gave.

Stress and anxiety

The thing is, stress and anxiety are self-fulfilling. That negative feeling colours our attention and we’re drawn to other things that fuel our downhill spiral. Which isn’t ideal when needing to get on with colleagues. But we have evolution to thank for that one. If we’re threatened or injured, what is more important for us to spot – a cute puppy or that salivating bear stampeding through the bushes?

But while mother nature may be at part to blame, she may also have the solution.

You see, nature has been shown to decrease stress and even reduce the likelihood of depression. Give it a quick Google and you’ll find a whole heap of articles from the Guardian to National Geographic. But here’s a few ways we can use this.

1. Find lunch time nature walks

I was lucky enough to attend the Pint of Science festival this year – a fantastic educational event run across 26 cities each year. One of the expert speakers took delight in telling us how just one trip amongst nature a week has been shown to significantly decrease your chance of depression.

Not only that, but even just 15 mins walking through a natural environment has been shown to:

  • Decrease the stress hormone, cortisol
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Lower heart rate

So, seek out your nearest park. Find some ways to get amongst nature on lunch. Got a good walk near your office? Why not share it and help others enjoy the feeling too.

2. Scatter the office with plants

It sounds too simple, doesn’t it? Put plants in the office and everyone will be happier. Try thinking of it this way. Have you ever been to a zoo where the animals are in cages with no vegetation? It’s just a bare room, where they spend most of their time. Do these animals seem happy? What about compared to the ones with the lush green enclosure?

You may say, “yes, but these animals are closer to their natural environment.” So then - what’s ours?

Plants are linked to many good things. Researchers at Exeter University found that employees are 15% more productive when houseplants are introduced to the office environment.

Other positive effects reported include reductions in anxiety, depression, hostility, and even fatigue.

Do you have plants in your office? Is there one in your eyeline? If not, it may be time to pop to the garden centre.

3. Bring pets into the workplace

Let’s just start by saying this – I challenge you not to smile at a puppy. OK, animals aren’t for everyone, but they have long been used in therapy. Take the idea of the puppy. They’re always happy to see you, make no judgement, require no social skills, and love unconditionally. Can you say that about many co-workers?!

Dogs, cats, birds, fish, and horses have all been used in forms of therapy for years. In 1980, a study showed that heart attack patients who owned pets lived longer than those who didn’t. Petting a dog has been shown to release endorphins and lower blood pressure.

In fact, animals are regularly used for people with emotional and behavioural disorders. They can reduce stress, better self-esteem, improve mood and even improve communication skills.

So, what’s stopping us bringing them in to the workplace? Well, nothing.

Google and Amazon allow people to bring their dogs to work. And last year, the Guardian reported on over 50 companies who do the same – from Nestlé to Dunlop. BrewDog even went one better, and allowed employees time off work to nurture their puppies!

It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. There’s a national Bring Your Dog to Work Day in June. That could be the perfect time to test yourself out with pets in the workplace. Bring a dog in and see what happens.

A natural remedy

Everyone has their own strategies when it comes to stress and anxiety. There are solutions with diet, technology, exercise and more. But a quote from National Geographic summed it up best for me: “Imagine a therapy that had no known side effects, was readily available, and could improve your cognitive functioning at zero cost. It exists. It’s called interacting with nature.”

Watch this space for some great pieces on mental health in the workplace this week, to celebrate World Mental Health Day. In the meantime, have a look at our wellbeing solutions to see what difference you can make to your employees.
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