Workplace plants can cut down on health problems and stress, according to research.
In the workplace, plants can result in a significant reduction in absence due to illness and an improvement in the performance and productivity of staff. And in schools, plants can help students improve their academic performance.
Research conducted by Dr. Roger S. Ulrich of Texas A&M University, Helen Russell, Surrey University, England, and Dr. Virginia Lohr of Washington State University indicate that plants significantly lower workplace stress and enhance productivity. In Lohr’s study participants’ blood pressure, pulse and emotional states were recorded in both the presence and absence of plants. Those who worked with plants nearby were twelve percent more productive and less stressed than those who worked in an environment with no plants. In addition, subject reaction time in the presence of plants was 12 percent faster than those subjects without plants. For his part, Ulrich found that visual exposure to plant settings produced significant recovery from stress within five minutes.
A study conducted in 2010 in Australia found the following benefits to staff from workplace plants.
- Tension/Anxiety – 37 percent reduction
- Depression/Dejection – 58 percent reduction
- Anger/Hostility – 44 percent reduction
- Fatigue – 38 percent reduction
Plants can also help mitigate sick building syndrome due to toxic fumes from the off-gassing of carpeting, furnishings and office equipment in modern, energy-efficient sealed buildings. Research by experts like Dr. Bill Wolverton and his assistants in the Environmental Research Laboratory of John C. Stennis Space Center shows that plant-filled rooms contain fifty to sixty percent fewer airborne molds and bacteria than rooms without plants, and plants have been proved to absorb office pollutants into their leaves and transmit the toxins to their roots, where they are transformed into a source of food for the plant. In his book How to Grow Fresh Air, Wolverton suggests that everyone have a plant on his or her desk, within what he calls the “personal breathing zone.”
The presence of workplace plants is not only beneficial to the workers. Live greenery actually benefits the space’s operational functions as well. Interior landscaping keeps humidity levels at an optimal range for human comfort, health and facility maintenance. The cooling effect of indoor trees and landscapes has been carefully measured and well documented. A Washington State University study demonstrates that plant transpiration in an office environment releases moisture, creating a humidity level exactly matching the recommended human comfort range of thirty to sixty percent. According to the International Society of Arboriculture, the net cooling effect of one young, healthy tree is equivalent to ten room-size air conditioners operating twenty hours a day.
Workplace plants can earn developers and builders LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environment) credits, as illustrated on the Green Plants for Green Buildings website.
Another study undertaken in 2005 by the Royal Agricultural College in Cirencester, England, found that students can improve their chances of academic accomplishment with a little help from plants. Amanda Read studied the attendance and behavior of a group of 34 students over the course of an academic year during a weekly series of lectures. The location of the lectures alternated each week between a room with plants and a room without plants. The audience was observed for behavioral signs of inattention including daydreaming, talking, fidgeting and yawning. In the room where plants were present, student’s inattentiveness was reduced by 70 percent. Following a lecture break, 97.8 percent of students returned to the plant-filled lecture room while only 86.4 percent returned to the flora-free space.
In 1984, Harvard biologist Dr. Ed Wilson named our natural human affinity for Nature biophilia. Stephen R. Kellert, an advisor on prominent green building projects and professor of social ecology at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental studies has spent much of his career thinking and writing about biophilia. Green Plants for Green Buildings reports on a recent interview with Kellert discussing his textbook Biophilic Design: The Theory, Science, and Practice of Bringing Buildings to Life. He discussed a study underway at the eastern headquarters for Bank of America at Bryant Park [in mid-town Manhattan]. “My colleague is currently working on the study along with a furniture manufacturer, Herman Miller to review the degree to which direct exposure to natural elements might impact employees in the office and factory. They were able to find significant productivity gains, less absenteeism, less health problems, a better sense of well-being as reported by the individuals that participated. And ultimately all of this translates to the bottom line.”
What Kind of Plants
The first list of air-filtering plants was compiled by NASA as part of a clean air study published in 1989, which researched ways to clean air in space stations. These plants absorb and eliminate pollutants like benzene, formaldehyde, and trichloroethylene, which may off-gas from furniture, carpeting, and wall coverings. The selection and maintenance of workplace plants requires some planning. Some considerations are the unique environmental conditions such as air conditioning and light levels, and the challenges of keeping them watered and healthy.
Some suitable workplace plants are:
- Spider plants
- Rubber plant
- Peace lily
Seven Steps to a Workplace Plants Policy
Here is a Seven-Step Plan (originally created by an American education campaign Plants at Work and its European sister effort Healthy Plants in the Workplace) to make any workplace – including schools – greener and healthier.
1. Create support: Support from senior management and key staff is a prerequisite for introducing a new policy. Therefore, highlight the importance of plants in the workplace with the aid of appropriate examples, research results and informative material. Also involve the people responsible for health policy in the plan for formulating a plants policy, for example representatives of the human resource department, occupational health and safety representatives.
2. Establish structures: The next step is to establish an organizational structure for the development and implementation of a plants policy. Check who needs to be involved in this, who is already interested and whether there are any initiatives already underway in this area.
3. Identify needs: For this you need to draw up an inventory of the number of plants in the company and the plant types involved. Pay special attention to workplaces which are close to sources of harmful substances such as printers and other machines. Also identify the locations of employees who display the symptoms of illnesses associated with poor working environments.
4. Developing a plan: In this phase you decide which activities you will carry out this year. Use the information from Step 3 to identify priorities and then draw up a timetable for carrying out the activities and a program setting out who will do what and when.
5. Implement the plan: You can do this through the company’s existing channels of communication such as employee consultation, internet, the company newsletter, a staff meeting and the information provided to new employees. Pay additional attention to the start of the activities, and ensure information about the activities and any interim results is provided regularly.
6. Evaluate plants policy: Establish how many healthy plants have been added, whether the plants are being properly cared for, how many people attended the briefings and awareness of the scheme generally, and ask about staff motivation. In the longer term the effects on absence due to illness can also be included, so that you gain an insight into the costs and benefits of the project. Produce a report with recommendations for further activities and suggestions for improvements.
7. Modify and embed the policy: Health policy is really never finished. Nor is a plant policy. A one-time activity which involves placing plants everywhere is not enough. The results of the evaluation should be used to modify and fine tune the plan.
An earlier version of this article was published in Natural Life Magazine.