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Should we all be working outdoors?

Lydia Smith
Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
Research suggests being outside may help energise workers. Photo: Getty

For workers cooped up in a grey, airless office every day, spending a lunch or short break outside can be a lifeline — helping us feel refreshed, relaxed, and more awake.

Multiple studies have shown being in nature not only improves mental and physical health, but also boosts focus and creativity, reduces fatigue, and improves memory. Being surrounded by the outdoors makes us feel better, which may improve how we perform at work.

There could be a good reason for this. The biophilia hypothesis suggests that humans have a biological connection to nature. First coined by Edward O Wilson in 1984, the term describes our innate tendency to seek connections with nature — as well as the “urge to affiliate with other forms of life.”

This theory may explain why we find nature so pleasant, whether it’s a gentle breeze, the sound of birdsong, or the feeling of warm sun on the skin. It could also explain why companies have begun to bring the outdoors into modern office spaces — in order to improve employee happiness, health, and productivity.

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Considering people spend roughly 93% of our day inside a building or a vehicle, the idea of working outside likely strikes many as a pretty foreign concept. But there are ways to take advantage of nature in an office setting, including holding meetings outside, designing workspaces with direct access to the outdoors, and ensuring employees have views of something other than concrete. With the growing problem of workers’ poor health, now might be the time for companies to embrace the great outdoors.

Mental health is a major problem in the UK workforce, with 15.4 million working days lost to ill health due to work-related stress, depression, or anxiety. Nature may not reduce the pressure on overworked employees, but multiple studies have linked time spent outside with improved mood and relaxation.

In Japan, the practice of “forest bathing” (shinrin-yoku) — taking immersive walks in nature — has been shown to decrease cortisol levels, sympathetic nervous activity, blood pressure, and heart rate.

Access to nature can vastly improve wellbeing, according to a 2018 study by King’s College London. Researchers found that exposure to trees, the sky, and birdsong in cities is beneficial to mental health.

Humans may have a biological connection to nature. Photo: Getty

While most of us counteract feeling tired or sluggish with caffeine, research suggests being outside may also help energise us. A series of studies published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology in 2010 found being in nature makes people feel more alive.

"Nature is fuel for the soul. Often when we feel depleted we reach for a cup of coffee, but research suggests a better way to get energised is to connect with nature,” according to Richard Ryan, lead study author and a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester.

“Research has shown that people with a greater sense of vitality don't just have more energy for things they want to do, they are also more resilient to physical illnesses. One of the pathways to health may be to spend more time in natural settings,” Ryan said.

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Being surrounded by nature can also help with short-term memory, research suggests. A University of Michigan study found that walking in a park or even viewing pictures of nature helped improve both memory and attention span.

In the first of two studies, participants were given a 35-minute task involving repeating loads of random numbers back, but in reverse order. They were then sent out for a walk — one group around an arboretum and the other down a busy city street — while being tracked with GPS devices. They each repeated the memory test when they got back.

People’s performance on the test improved by almost 20% after wandering amongst the trees, according to the results.

If your work schedule leaves little time for leisurely walks outside, exposure to natural elements inside can also boost health and wellbeing. People in offices exposed to plants and outside views showed improved health outcomes compared to those with no exposure, according to a 2018 Harvard study. Even study participants wearing virtual reality headsets with images of nature benefited.

A happier, healthier workforce is undoubtably a huge benefit to a company, but big tech firms like Amazon, Apple, and Facebook have only recently started to make the link between nature and work. With mental health and wellbeing an increasing concern among overstretched, stressed employees, bringing our work outside just might help.