Grete Patil, Katinka H. Evensen and Ruth Kjærsti Raanaas;
Section for Public Health Science, Department of Landscape Architecture and Spatial Planning, Norwegian University of Life Sciences.
Benefits of nature exposure to human health has been a subject of increased attention in recent decades. Nature can be a place in which to recharge and gather strength to meet daily challenges, and to recover after the completion of demanding tasks. Natural environments can provide mental rest, encourage physical activity or facilitate social interaction (Hartig et al. 2014). Nature is important to Norwegians, and in our interpretation of the term health, nature and experiences in nature are essential (Fugelli and Ingstad 2001).
Where we live, our daily obligations, and how these are organised can exert significant limitations on our opportunities for interacting with nature. Research shows that the greater number of hours in a day are spent indoors (Vaage 2012). An important question is therefore whether we can introduce nature elements indoors, for instance by adding plants, and achieve something similar to the research-indicated effect of interacting with nature outdoors.
Studies of simulated indoor work environments show that we prefer rooms with indoor plants to rooms with equivalent non-living objects (Evensen 2012). A Norwegian study also indicates that we compensate for a lack of windows by introducing indoor plants or pictures with natural motifs (Bringslimark 2010). Further, an American study shows that health workers consider break rooms with windows to provide better opportunity for relaxation and restitution than rooms with a picture of nature or a plant (Nejati et al. 2015). The break room was deemed even more beneficial when a balcony door, indicating the possibility of going outside, replaced the window.
The question is whether this preference for nature also means that nature elements indoors can influence work health and productivity. There is insufficient research on the connections between indoor plants, health and productivity, and the results of existing research differ somewhat. Many of the studies examine employees in office firms or health institutions, and there are three main types of studies; experiments in simulated environments, surveys, and field studies comparing people in different environments over time. A challenge when studying nature indoors and health is that many factors more significant than the physical environment influence health and productivity. Such factors may also interact with the physical environment. The design of an indoor environment may support or limit the social environment, and an organizational culture can influence how the physical environment is utilised (Thomsen et al. 2011).
A Norwegian study completed in the Statoil offices in the 1990’s has received much attention (Fjeld et al. 1998). Information on self-reported health complaints were collected from two groups of employees. One group received plants for their offices, and the other did not. The study was designed so that the group without plants in the first part of study received plants in the second. The health complaints researched were those linked to poor air quality, like headaches, poor concentration and fatigue (neuropsychological), sore mucous membranes and dry skin. The results showed a 23% overall reduction of health issues with plants present, and a significant reduction of both neuropsychological and mucous membrane-related complaints.
There are several possible explanations to these results. Plants and the soil microorganisms are able to remove some pollutants in the air (Dela Cruz et al. 2014), thereby potentially influencing air quality and subsequently the occurrence of related health issues. Fjeld et al. (1998) did not measure air quality in their study, and we do know that a significant number of plants are necessary in order to obtain a measurable effect on air pollution. Another theory is that the plants render the surroundings more aesthetic and healthy to dwell in. In a qualitative study of plants in a rehabilitation centre, people under rehabilitation expressed that the presence of healthy-looking plants made them feel healthier (Raanaas et al. 2016).
Dutch scientists (Djikstra et al. 2008) have researched the significance of plants as part of a visually simulated hospital environment for the participants’ evaluation of expected stress reaction. They found lower stress scores in the evaluations of rooms with plants than without, and the perceived attractiveness of the rooms explained the connection. A Norwegian survey on work stress and physical work environments among office employees also uncovered a connection between the use of plants and work-related stress (Bjørnstad et al. 2016). The exciting findings of this study was that this connection was explained by the perception of being well cared for by management, and that this attention also explained a association between the use of plants and a reduction in self-reported health complaints and sick days.
The next question is whether plants in a work environment can influence productivity, and this has only been researched through short-term studies. Evensen et al. (2015) have researched the ability to concentrate on computer tasks in various simulated work environments. They found that people’s ability to remember and repeat information provided via computer was better in rooms with plants than without. Meanwhile there was no difference in performance between people in a room with plants and people in a room with equivalent non-living objects. In a similar American study, there was a reduction in the ability to concentrate on proofreading a text when there was an increasing amount of plants in the room (Larson et al. 1998). This in spite of the participants reporting increased concentration, better mood and being more content with their surroundings.
There is great variation in the use of and activity in indoor environments, and the usefulness of introducing nature elements will therefore vary significantly. There is evidently a preference for access to nature elements, while their significance in relation to health and productivity can depend on many factors. Stephen Kellert (2008) has launched the concept Biophilic Design entailing that in addition to the environmental imprint of a building being minimised, its design must also support the health and well-being of its users. He focuses on the use of visual natural elements indoors as a part of this concept. This could be in the form of a room with a view, the ability to step outside, and the use of allergy-friendly plants or pictures of nature scenes.
(under bilder: Allergy-friendly plants should be selected. The Norwegian Asthma and Allergy Association has published a book about this: Gode råd er grønne (2006)
Indoor plants are subtropic and tropic shadow plants. Plants from Norwegian climate is not adapted to our indoor climate)
Bjerke, M., Ramfjord, H. 2006. Gode råd er grønne. Et allergivennlig grønt miljø inne og ute. The Norwegian Asthma and Allergy Association.
Bjørnstad, S., Patil, G.G. Raanaas, R.K. 2016. Nature contact and organizational support during office working hours: benefits relating to stress reduction, subjective health complaints, and sick leave. WORK 53: 9-20.
Dela Cruz, M., Christensen, J.H., Thomsen, J.D., Müller, R. 2014. Can ornamental potted plants remove volatile organic compounds from indoor air? - a review. Environmental Science and Pollution Research, 21: 13909-13928.
Bringslimark, T., Hartig, T., Patil, G. G. 2011. Adaptation to windowlessness: Do office workers compensate for a lack of visual access to the outdoors? Environment and Behavior, 43: 469-467.
Dijkstra, K., Pieterse, M. E., Pruyn, A. 2008. Stress-reducing effects of indoor plants in the built healthcare environment: The mediating role of perceived attractiveness. Preventive Medicine, 47: 279-283.
Evensen, K.H. 2012. Nature at work: Experimental studies of restorative elements at computer workstations. PhD Thesis, Norwegian University of Life Sciences.
Evensen, K. H., Raanaas, R. K., Hagerhall, C. M., Johansson, M., Patil, G. G. 2015. Restorative elements at the computer workstation. A comparison of live plants and inanimate objects with and without window view. Environment and Behavior, 47: 288-303.
Fjeld, T., Veiersted, B., Sandvik, L., Riise, G., Levy, F. 1998. The effect of indoor foliage plants on health and discomfort symptoms among office workers. Indoor and Built Environment, 7: 204-209.
Fugelli, P., Ingstad, B. (2001). Helse - slik folk ser det. Tidsskrift for Den norske lægeforening, 121: 3600-3604.
Hartig, T., Mitchell, R., De Vries, S., Frumkin, H. 2014. Nature and health. Annual review of public health, 35: 207-228.
Kellert, S.R., Heerwagen, J.H., Mador, M. 2008. Biophilic design. The theory, science, and practice of bringing buildings to life. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Larsen, L., Adams, J., Deal, B., Kweon, B. S., Tyler, E. 1998. Plants in the Workplace. The effects of plant density on productivity, attitudes, and perceptions. Environment and Behavior, 30: 261-281.
Nejati, A., Shepley, M., Rodiek, S., Lee, C., Varni, J. 2015. Restorative design features for hospital staff break areas. A multi-method study. HERD: Health Environments Research & Design Journal, Published online before print July 10, 2015, doi: 10.1177/1937586715592632.
Raanaas, R.K., Patil, G., Alve, G. 2015. Patients´ recovery experiences of indoor plants and views of nature in a rehabilitation center. WORK (in press).
Thomsen, J. D., Sønderstrup-Andersen, H. K., Müller, R. 2011. People–plant relationships in an office workplace: perceived benefits for the workplace and employees. HortScience, 46: 744-752.
Vaage, O.F., 2012. Tidsbruk 2010. Utendørs 2 ½ time – menn mer enn kvinner. Samfunnsspeilet, 26(4): 37-42.