Nature Therapy and the Workplace
We need the tonic of wildness… At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.
Henry David Thoreau
When you walk in to our GGA office, you might notice that every windowsill has at least one (if not four or more) plants. Some of our plants have been propagated and multiplied, appearing in different corners of the office. Some vine and branch out, almost as if to sit at our desks and participate in the consulting process. Others are small and neat and tidy. All of them, however, are real.
Most people would not care too much about these plants and others still would rather get their low-maintenance, synthetic counterparts. But I think there is something special and inspiring about surrounding ourselves with greenery. There is certainly an air of tranquility in our downtown office and slowly, slowly, I am also making converts of my fellow consultants.
Why should we care about this?
Well, to begin with, there are countless studies on the ability of plants to reduce stress, increase productivity, and boost creativity in the workplace. Ironically, it sometimes takes plants – with all of their temperaments and requirements – to humanize us and to soften the environment. From a scientific perspective, plants can also be air purifiers and humidity regulators, particularly in offices with sealed windows. And then, from a Zen perspective, there are the benefits of admiring, living among, and taking care of plants.
As a team, all of us are nature lovers in some way. Some of us have done forestry studies. Some go camping and fishing. Some have worked many years planting trees out West. Some love trail running and swimming in lakes. We all love to travel and marvel, in total awe, at the diverse and magnificent geography and flora of countries abroad. In ways that we perhaps don’t even realize, nature connects and invigorates us. It gives us a certain clarity of mind, freedom, and internal peace that helps us manage the stress we face at work and in our lives.
Nature therapy has, in many ways, always been a part of all our lives. In the past, patients were often advised to find refuge in the countryside or somewhere quiet and filled with nature. Today, living in the hustle and bustle of big cities, we have fully disconnected ourselves from nature, and it’s no coincidence that we are increasingly stressed, anxious, and depressed. When we finally take a moment to reconnect, we sometimes find ourselves uncomfortable with the silence. If we listen to our bodies, we might eventually feel we can finally breathe. These signals and indicators are important to heed, because they tell us something interesting: we yearn for that connection between our minds, our bodies, and the natural world.
In Japan, Shinrin-Yoku is the practice of taking in the forest atmosphere/forest bathing. As a response to booming cities, deforestation, and disconnection with nature, it has become somewhat of a cornerstone of preventive health care and healing in Japanese medicine. Shinrin-Yoku Forest Medicine studies the ability of nature therapy to reduce blood pressure and stress and to improve moods, energy levels, and sleep. Nature therapy and related practices are well anchored all over the world, borne of the challenges and stress levels of those spending most of their time indoors.
I propose that nature therapy is another fundamental part of the broader movements towards creative and flexible workspaces, environmental conscientiousness, and mental health. In my own life, I have been lucky enough to have been exposed to nature from day one. I feel a physical draw to forests. When I am out there, camping, canoeing, swimming, hiking, I can tune back into my own beat and start to untangle and make sense of all of the information I am bombarded with on a daily basis. I can start to think creatively about ways to tackle a challenging consulting project or interpret the thoughts shared during a particularly focused interview. Organizational challenges and obstacles come into fuller clarity. Strategic planning is facilitated by my unfiltered, quiet, focused thought. I can deal better with stressful situations.
I have recently begun deepening my knowledge and connection of the natural world by learning about botany, the composition of forests, and the therapeutic properties of plants and fungi. Long hikes have also made it necessary for me to improve my orienteering and tree and plant identification skills. Perhaps this form of knowledge is not interesting to the majority of people these days, but there are interesting takeaways from my experiences:
First, reconnecting with nature helps us listen to our own bodies and needs. This, in turn, increases our empathy towards others. If we show up at the office feeling clear minded and refreshed, it is much easier to not only be productive, but also to be a good, empathetic leader and team player.
Second, understanding our interconnectedness with our planet helps us think of the bigger picture when it comes to climate change and environmental concerns. It humbles us and makes us realize that we are not the indomitable superhumans we have so far thought we are, conquering and laying waste to the planet that provides for us without consequence. When we look at the great might of the ocean or stare at the stars, we remember how small we have always been, and how dependent on the earth.
Looking more narrowly at the interconnectedness of forests and plant and tree systems also gives us ideas about organizational structure and design, deepening our understanding of organizational systems theory, for instance. A forest – much like an organisation – can increase its resilience to threats through well established channels of communication.
Finally, and I know this from personal experience, a simple walk in the forest is an extremely powerful mindfulness/meditation technique. If you do the audacious and turn off your phone, you might start to tune in with the gentle breeze, the smell of fallen leaves, the rhythmic sound of snow crunching underfoot. You might feel the bark of a tree or see a woodpecker. Out of the corner of your eye, you might catch a beaver ducking underwater. And then, in those quiet moments where you are fully absorbed in the here and the now, you might also start to feel that deep and ever-expanding connection with your inner self.
Article by Eva Maxwell