Nature, work and wellbeing

A guest blog for Warwickshire Wildlife Trust

I wonder where you are reading this. Perhaps in your home office, slumped on the sofa after a long day or maybe in a queue for a shop. Wherever you are, stop. Look at what you can see around you, inside and outside. If there’s a window, here is your permission to stare out of it. Let your eyes seek out any natural greens, blues or browns in your visual field right now. If you can see a plant or a tree, grass or leaves, water or wood, a bird or bee, focus on that. Choose one thing to bring your full attention to right now. Take in the shape and textures, lightness and shadow, colours and tones. Try to explore the object of your focus as if you have never seen it before. What do you notice? Even with a brief moment of intentionally exploring nature with our senses, we can feel calmer and more present for the task in hand. 

In her beautiful book ‘Phosphorescence’, on awe and wonder in the natural world, Julia Baird cites numerous studies before concluding that “In short: When we are exposed to sunlight, trees, water or even just a view of green leaves, we become happier, healthier and stronger.” She lists findings that students, inmates and patients who could see nature from their rooms had better mental health and cognitive function than those who couldn’t. She references one study where spending just fifteen minutes in a park made students feel less stressed, and another where a seventeen-minute walk made participants feel more comfortable, relaxed, less tired, confused and anxious. 

We all know that taking regular breaks is advised during the working day, but it seems that breaks where we engage with nature not only boost our wellbeing but the work we do.  How often do we do this though? I know I still get caught in believing that taking a short walk or sitting in the garden to eat my lunch will make me less productive. However, this is clearly not the case. We should not only take our breaks in nature but also meet with colleagues outdoors, in person or on the phone.

In their review of experiments on this theme, researchers Jo, Song and Miyazaki list many studies where exposure to natural environments and elements such as flowers, green plants or wooden materials aidsrelaxation and improves immunity. They also cite numerous studies showing the positive effects of exposure to natural environments through a display or projector. This proves what we’ve known for a while – the mind is incredibly powerful, and incredibly gullible. See what happens now when I invite you to imagine biting into a lemon. Our body reacts as if it is actually biting into one. I know I salivate and wince even writing that. This shows that we can feel the benefits of nature even if we don’t have direct access to it. We can put photos of nature in our office spaces, or look at pictures of places we’ve been or would like to go. 

I bring this idea into my free weekly Midday Calm sessions attended by people who are right in the middle of their busy day. I admire them making the time to attend but I know it may be in lieu of getting outside during the working day. So I guide people through an imagined walk through their favourite woods, or a mountain meditation where we bring to mind the image and qualities of a mountain they know well or one of their imagination. 

Similarly in my workplace wellbeing sessions, I invite people to think of one small thing they can do to boost their wellbeing. Overwhelmingly, it involves connecting with nature. Even if it’s just as one participant suggested, “putting your face in the sun for five minutes whilst waiting for the kettle to boil between meetings”. Or giving yourself permission to gaze out that window and not reprimand yourself for daydreaming or procrastinating. Allow yourself to engage fully with your senses and drink in the snippets of nature you can see. 

Having said all that, as a Wellbeing Coach, I am fully aware that simply knowing what’s good for us doesn’t necessarily mean we will do it. Information doesn’t promote action. If you want to set a goal around bringing more nature into your life to boost your wellbeing and your work, it has to be both a realistic and meaningful goal for you. 

Just like Emma Mitchell describes how she purposefully created a significant shift in her mood in the April chapter of ‘The Wild Remedy’, her powerfully vulnerable and inspiring book about the healing impact of nature on mental health. After reading research about how the presence of birds can help to lift depression, she invests in a bird feeder to encourage more birds to her garden. She is motivated both by having a small project and the desire to feel better. 

Use the questions below to create a meaningful and effective goal for yourself now:

What, if anything, would you like to change? 

How would you like to bring more nature into your day? 

Where would you go? What would you do? Who, if anyone, would you do it with? Or who will you celebrate your successes with? 

What obstacles do you foresee getting in the way of you achieving this goal?

How might you overcome those obstacles? 

How important is this to you on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being very important? If you rated it lower than a 7, think about what you could do that would align more with your values. 

Why is doing this important to you? 

How confident are you to make this happen on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being very confident? If you rated yourself less than a 7, what do you need to do to bring yourself up a notch? This could involve changing the goal slightly or getting some support from others to give you more confidence.

When will you start? Once you’ve adjusted your goal and have one that is important and meaningful to you, set a date and time to start it.

I wish you well with your nature, work and wellbeing goal. Remember to bring kindness and understanding to yourself if you don’t achieve it fully or the first time you try. In fact, nature constantly reminds us that change takes time and patience, energy and experimentation. 

Katie offers wellbeing workshops for workplaces and community groups, as well as one-to-one coaching sessions to support you to set effective goals to improve your wellbeing. Midday Calm is a free 30-minute session Katie runs every Tuesday at 12.30pm to help relax and rejuvenate for the rest of the day. All welcome. www.kpwellbeing.com/workshops

References

Jo H, Song C, Miyazaki Y. Physiological Benefits of Viewing Nature: A Systematic Review of Indoor Experiments. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2019;16(23):4739. Published 2019 Nov 27. doi:10.3390/ijerph16234739

Phosphorescence by Julia Baird, 2020

The Wild Remedy, by Emma Mitchell 2019