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Boosting Mental Health Through Nature

Elle Whitehead | 13th May 2021

Mental Health Awareness week is a big deal here at The Happiness Index. Our mission is to help provide people with the Freedom to be Human. Of course, all humans have mental health. Whether it’s good or bad relies on a number of interrelated factors. Although genetics do have a big part to play in an individual’s mental health, environmental factors play a pivotal role in exacerbating or improving mental ill-health. You don’t need me to tell you that your work environment can be central to this. 

The theme for this year’s mental health awareness week is nature. You’ll find loads of cool stats about the impact that being in nature can have on people’s mental health on their website. But suffice to say that time spent in nature can improve mood, boost creativity, and even decrease time spent in hospital. 

The natural cure and the science behind it

Research has linked everything from the sounds of nature, such as birdsong, to the smells of nature, such as flowers and cut grass to improved mental health. The Japanese practice of “forest bathing” has been used for generations to help ground people. Scientists have now proved that spending time in forests has a beneficial effect on mental and physical health. 

The good news is that you needn’t spend days at a time in nature to get the benefits. Studies, like this one from 2017, show that just stopping to notice and appreciate nature when you come across it in your day, can have a positive effect on mental health. 

However, this research is still in its infancy. Recent studies have looked into the effect of a certain bacteria which can be found in soil. Researchers hypothesise that the bacteria works in similar ways in the brains as antidepressants such as Prozak. 

Professor Christopher Lowry, an expert in this area, commented:

The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation. That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders.  

When we think about the many millions of bacteria we come into contact with every day, both within our bodies and in the environment, we can begin to see the scale of the impact of these tiny organisms. Professor Lowry says “We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which bacteria evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us.” 

We’re much more likely to come into contact with these helpful bacteria when we’re outside in nature, with our hands in the soil, or hugging trees. By comparison when we’re inside sterile office buildings, the bacteria may be much less helpful. 

The limits of self care

There are people who have chronic or extremely poor mental health. If this is the case then time spent outside in nature isn’t going to help. We feel very strongly about breaking down taboos about seeking professional help, as well as taking medication if your doctor recommends it. If you do feel like you need professional support we recommend getting in contact with trusted organisations with the right expertise, like Mind, 0300 123 3393 or Samaritans, 116 123 or via their website

Bringing Nature into your organisation

When it comes to nature and the workplace, there’s a whole school of study around a concept called Biophilia. This term was originally coined by Erich Fromm in The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (1973), which described biophilia as “the passionate love of life and of all that is alive.” Since then, numerous studies have proven the effectiveness of bringing nature into buildings, through planting, and natural materials. These methods can have similar effects as spending time outdoors. 

Experts like Tabitha James, Director and Lead Coach at Earthself, actively try to embed the lessons gained from nature into the workplace. The truth of the matter is that happiness extends outside of the workplace and sometimes the workplace extends out into nature. This isn’t just a case of yanking everyone out of the office and doing some trust exercises in the woods. It’s a matter of building nature into the daily lives of your people. 

Many offices are starting to include green spaces around their buildings, or indoor garden spaces. This is a good start, but Tabitha argues that this doesn’t go far enough. She wants more organisations to build space and time into daily work life to appreciate and enjoy nature. Systems need to be put in place to help people connect with, find the beauty in, and spend time out in nature. 

There are a number of ways in which this can be done. Ensuring your team has adequate breaks, and finishes on time to get out and about while it’s still light is key. Some companies have summer hours to help their people make the most of the better weather. Some meetings can also be taken outside, either in a park or green space, or while walking. This is particularly the case for phone calls or video meetings which can be kept informal. 

No blanket solutions

We can suggest as many potential solutions as we like, but the truth of the matter is that not all of these ideas will work for every organisation or every individual. The key thing is to create solutions which work for your team. You won’t be able to take all of our suggestions above and apply them because they won’t all be relevant or practical. Plus, some solutions may work for most of your team, but not everyone. Not to mention the fact that people’s lives and circumstances change over time, meaning that a solution that works today may not work tomorrow. 

Because of this we recommend really listening to your people to find out how you can help your team get into nature in a way that works for them and their lifestyle. Our platform can help do this on an ongoing basis. In particular, our wellbeing survey will help you understand where your team is currently when it comes to their wellbeing and what they would like to see improved. 

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