Motivation and emotion/Book/2016/Plants in the office and emotion

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Plants in the office and emotion:
What is the effect of plants in offices on worker emotions?


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Figure 1. Beautiful leafy plants could be used in all office spaces to enhance emotion in employees.

In today's fast-paced work environment, employees often do not have the time to rejuvenate their attention and head space. Adding plants to the office can create an atmosphere where employees feel relaxed, which inspires creativity and innovation.

Since the technological advances of the 20th and 21st centuries, people are spending less time amongst nature and plants. Previously it was custom to spend the majority of the day working on the land, taking care of animals and being surrounded by plants and nature. Nowadays most people spend their day in buildings far away from their natural environment and setting. Employees such as office workers, lawyers, healthcare professionals and business people are some of the many that spend most of their day indoors. These workers often spend their morning before work and the afternoon after work at home without any intervention from nature either. Therefore many individuals spend a substantial amount of time without the influence of nature or plants. Correlations between the exposure to the urban environment and an increase in the prevalence of hypertension, obesity and diabetes have been found in relevant past research, which highlights the necessity to introduce plants back into our lives (Sobnqwi et al., 2004). Aries, Veitch, and Newsham (2010) found that when an employee had a view of a window, their overall discomfort reduced. It is only now, after research into the effect of plants on humans, that we understand how beneficial plants are to our overall health and well-being (Alcock, White, Wheeler, Fleming & Depledge, 2014). With the rising incidence of mental health problems in society, it is vital for offices to add plants to their environments to enhance employee emotion.

What is emotion?

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Figure 2. Robert Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions

Emotion is the conscious experience of mental activity and a degree of either pleasure or displeasure (Cabanac, 2002). Emotions can be affected by our environment and surroundings. There are physiological, cognitive, and behavioural changes connected with emotions and these changes can influence varying outcomes in mental health, well-being, stress and physiology (Lench, Tibbett, & Bench, 2016). Robert Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions demonstrates the array of emotions that can be experienced and their relationships to one another (Plutchik, 2001).

Quiz - Could you add plants to your life to benefit your emotional well-being?

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If you answer 'no' to any of these questions - chances are you should buy some plants!

1 Do you have any living plants or flowers at your immediate workspace?


2 Are there any indoor plants in your building at work?


3 Do you feel the air in your workspace is clean and fresh?


4 Do you feel like you often have very good levels of concentration and performance at work?


5 Do you get to be around plants, flowers or trees in nature outside of work?


Research about how plants in the workplace can positively affect office employees

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Mental health improvements

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Figure 3. Being amongst plants can significantly affect our mood and well-being .

Research during the 21st century advocates the mental health benefits of being surrounded by green spaces and plants (Gascon, Triguero-Mas, Martínez, Dadvand, Forns, Plasència, & Nieuwenhuijsen, 2015). A study conducted by Alcock et al. (2014) revealed that within three years of moving to a greener area the mental health of the participants had improved in comparison to those that moved to a less green area. It has been discovered that there may be a correlation between an increasing distance to the nearest green space and an elevated risk of mental illness (Sturm & Cohen, 2014), symptoms of depression (Reklaitiene, Grazuleviciene, Dedele, Virviciute, Vensloviene, Tamosiunas & Nieuwenhuijsen, 2014), and the eventual treatment for mood and anxiety disorders in adults (Nutsford, Pearson, & Kingham, 2013). Mental illness and mental health problems are increasing in the workplace, as are the urbanisation of communities in developed and developing countries (Gascon et al., 2015). Thus, building and office planning should take into account the importance of reducing mental illness in the workplace and the evidence that correlates plants with a reduction of mental illness.

Stress reduction

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Figure 4. Plants can be positioned in all areas of the office building so that employees are immersed in nature's beauty.

Stress is a factor in the workplace that can severely decrease efficiency, well-being and impair mood. Lottrup, Grahn, and Stigsdotter (2013) found that when employees were exposed to green outdoor views at their workplace, their overall perceived stress levels reduced. A study conducted by Largo-Wight, Chen, Dodd, and Weiler (2011) studied the stress levels and general health complaints when in contact with nature versus when not in contact with nature. They found there was a significant correlation between nature contact and general health complaints. The findings demonstrated that when office workers were exposed to nature throughout their workday, their self-reported stress levels and health complaints diminished (Largo-Wight et al., 2011). Workers with very high levels of sick leave taken and high levels of stress took part in an intervention that included the introduction of a garden and nature-based stress reduction (Sahlin, Ahlborg, Matuszczyk, Grahn & Högskolan, 2014). After the introduction of plants within the organization, the office workers’ self-reported work performance increased along with a reduced rate of sick leave taken (Sahlin et al., 2014). After the introduction of the plants into the workplace, the employees perceived their workspace as relaxing in itself (Sahlin et al., 2014). A study conducted by Lee, Lee, Park, & Miyazaki (2015) showed that when employees actively interacted with indoor plants at work there was a reduction in their physiological and psychological stress. Researchers found that this reduction in stress levels was because of a suppression of the nervous system, blood pressure and an increase in comfortable and natural feelings (Lee et al., 2015).

Physiological well-being and health

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Office spaces and organisations should utilise indoor plants as they can maximise well-being like they have in a study conducted in 2009 by Park and Mattson. In this study ornamental plants were placed in half the hospital rooms while the other half did not have any plants added to them (Park et al., 2009). The patients with plants in their hospital room had significantly lower levels of stress, blood pressure, pain, anxiety and fatigue (Park et al., 2009). The patients felt more positive and that the environment promoted healing (Park et al., 2009). This could mean that due to the correlations between plants and the increased well-being of hospital patients, the same correlation could exist for office workers who are feeling sick or suffering from an illness. Research has shown that plants in buildings maximise air quality[explain?] and that this positively affects human physiology, resulting in a reduction of sick days taken and number of health complaints (Largo-Wight et al., 2011).

Increase in workplace productivity

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Research suggests that plants in the office can affect emotions positively and consequently increase workplace productivity (Bringslimark, Hartig, & Patil 2007) which also increases job satisfaction and performance (Malik, 2014). Office spaces without any view of nature or plants have been found to be the most toxic place for a human, causing mental and physiological affects through negative emotions transpiring from the lack of nature. According to Malik (2014) when plants are added to the office space, worker productivity is increased because the employees are exposed to elements from their natural environment. In a study conducted by Bringslimark (2007), indoor plants proximal to an employee's desk had a significant correlation with a reduction in sick leave taken and an increase in work output and productivity.

Limitations in the research

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Although there has been some research into the effect of plants on worker emotions, it is not highly influential as of yet. Our society is considerably unenlightened about the huge influence plants and nature can have on improving their emotional well being. Plants remind individuals of their natural environment which has an extraordinary positive effect on emotions (Dasgupta, 2001). More research should be conducted in this area to cement correlations between plants in the office and positive emotions.

It is important to note that the majority of the research about plants and office employee emotion is based on the visual effects of the natural environment, failing to study how the other senses such as smell, sounds, taste and touch respond to plants (Ulrich et al., 1991).

Psychological theories and their application to emotion and plants in the office

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Stress reduction theory

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Stress Reduction Theory (SRT) suggests that seeing or being present within nature has the ability to reduce stress (Bratmann, Hamilton, & Daily, 2012). Bratmann et al. (2012) found that stress is reduced when an individual has a view of natural elements, such as plants, which causes the automatic production of physiological and mental responses. Ulrich, Simons, Losito, Fiority, Miles, and Zelson (1991) stated that natural green landscapes and plants assist in moderating and diminishing negative emotions and high states of arousal. By adding plants in the office, stress can be effectively and significantly reduced through psychophysiological pathways (Ulrich et al., 1991). Ulrich (1983, 1984) stated that stress reduction is achieved through unconscious and autonomic responses to natural elements in our immediate environment. This occurs without recognition and is an evolutionary adaptation whereby the view of natural environments such as healthy plants meant there was a greater chance of survival in these areas for our ancestors (Ulrich et al., 1991). Ulrich et al. (1991) argues that when our brain recognises a natural environment, it releases calming biological and mental reactions to the scenery.

Figure 5. Office plants add a calming addition to a workspace.

Attention restoration theory

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Similar to SRT, Attention Restoration Theory (ART) supports the notion that alterations in attention and stress levels can be affected by the interaction with natural environments such as plants (Ulrich et al., 1991). ART suggests that nature has the power to restore attention, focus and concentration through unconscious cognitive processes as a reaction to natural environments (Ulrich et al., 1991). Urban environments such as buildings and office workspaces are taxing on our ability to concentrate and so ART offers a way to replenish our minds through the immersion of one's self amongst plants (Ulrich et al., 1991). ART declares that attention is involuntarily and unconsciously restored when interacting with natural environments (Ulrich et al., 1991). The experience of being exposed to plants allows the mind to automatically and mechanically restore attention (Ulrich et al., 1991)[how?].

Application in real life

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Office worker case study

Monica is a Telecommunications Manager and spends most of her day in her office building. Her team recently moved to a newer building as part of their corporate expansion. The exterior of her new building is made of red brick and inside the office consists of cubicles and plain coloured walls. Because her office is situated in a newer suburb, the office is surrounded by dirt and construction sites. When you look out the window, there are no plants or trees outside. Inside, there are no natural elements in the office space and the air often feels "stuffy" and dirty.

Since the move to the new building Monica has found that her job has become very stressful and finds herself struggling to concentrate and be efficient. Monica has noticed that most of her team members in her department often appear stressed and struggle to meet deadlines. This employee attitude change has increased operating costs due to the time it takes for her department to complete tasks.

Last weekend, Monica attended a professional development course called "Plants at Work". She discovered that adding natural elements to the workspace such as plants indoors and outdoors could reduce her team’s stress levels.

There was some money left over in the office budget to buy new unhealthy vending machines for the office space. However, instead Monica used this money to purchase a plant for each desk in her department and install some vertical gardens on the plain walls. She also asked head office if they could plant some trees outside, which they agreed to due to the well-being benefits.

Since the improvements Monica has made she has noticed a reduction in stress level in her team, happiness, increased productivity, lower operating costs, better employee attitudes and fresher and cleaner air in the office.

University student case study

Josh is a university student studying mathematics. He spends a lot of his time in his room studying and figuring our formulas. Josh calculated how much time he spent working at his desk at home and came up with a total of at least 35 hours per week. This is a lot of time to spend sitting at his desk so hopefully Josh has a nice desk that minimises stress.

However Josh's desk is very plain, cluttered and boring. It has a few stacks of textbooks, a desktop computer, some anime figurines and some random pieces of paper everywhere. Josh's desk faces out towards a window, however Josh is always too absorbed in his work to ever open the curtains to see his beautiful fern-filled rainforest-like garden outside. In fact, Josh often works in low light, with no sunlight and no view of anything natural.

Josh casually mentioned one day to his lecturer at university that he is always stressed and has a dry mouth and eyes from the poor air quality in his room. He also finds it depressing to study in his room however that is the only place he can really focus on his work without distractions. His lecturer told him about the benefits of adding natural elements in his room to improve his stress levels and the air quality of his room.

When Josh was driving home after his lecture that day, he stopped off at his local nursery to pick up two desk plants. Once Josh arrived home he arranged the two plants to fit on his desk, lifted the curtains, and opened his large-floor-to-ceiling window so he could see the beautiful garden outside. The greenery from the desk plants and the outdoor garden was beautiful and Josh wished that he had taken the time to do this earlier.

Josh would do this each time he studied from then on. Over time, Josh no longer had a dry and sore mouth and eyes and he noticed that the air quality was fresh and clean. He saw a significant improvement also to his stress levels and finally felt at ease while studying.

Tips to add more plants or green space to your working environment

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  • Go out now and buy a small plant for your desk!
  • If you can choose your cubicle or office at work, make it the one near the window or where you can see the most greenery outside.
  • When working at home, open your curtains and windows so you can see the trees, grass and plants outside.
  • Take regular breaks at work outside rather than the staff room or cafeteria.
  • If you can, work or study outside near plants and trees or even lay on the grass.
  • If you go to university, choose study areas that overlook green space or where you can look out windows. In an exam, choose a seat near a window or near an indoor plant if there is one.


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Applicable research in the emotional affects of plants in the office demonstrates that the use of plants in the office work space is correlated with positive emotions. These positive emotions contribute to a reduction in stress levels, improvements in mental health, workplace productivity and enhancement in human physiology and health. The mental and physical health benefits of being surrounded by plants in the office are too great to ignore. This should be an encouragement to start adding plants into your working life in order to enhance your total well-being. The addition of plants is an easy and practical way of relieving stress and improving your mood and emotion on a day-to-day basis. The globalisation of the world has caused a shift away from natural elements and a step towards the urbanisation of our environment. As human beings, we should take a step back towards our natural environment in order to reap the benefits psychologically and physiologically.

See also

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Alcock, I., White, M.P., Wheeler, B.W., Fleming, L.E., Depledge, M. H. (2014). Longitudinal effects on mental health of moving to greener and less green urban areas. Environ. Sci. Technol. 48, 1247–1255. doi.10.1021/es403688w

Bratman, G. N., Hamilton, J. P., & Daily, G. C. (2012). The impacts of nature experience on human cognitive function and mental health: Nature experience, cognitive function, and mental health. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1249(1), 118-136. doi:10.1111/j.1749-6632.2011.06400.x

Bringslimark, T., Hartig, T., Patil, G. G. (2007). Psychological benefits of indoor plants in workplaces: Putting experimental results into context. Hortscience, 42(3), 581.

Cabanac, M. (2002). What is emotion? Behavioural processes, 60(2), 69-83. doi:10.1016/S0376-6357(02)00078-5.

Dasgupta, P. (2004). Human well-being and the natural environment. USA: Oxford University Press.

Gascon, M., Triguero-Mas, M., Martínez, D., Dadvand, P., Forns, J., Plasència, A., & Nieuwenhuijsen, M. J. (2015). Mental health benefits of long-term exposure to residential green and blue spaces: A systematic review. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 12(4), 4354-4379. doi:10.3390/ijerph120404354

Largo-Wight, E., Chen, W. W., Dodd, V., & Weiler, R. (2011). Healthy workplaces: The effects of nature contact at work on employee stress and health. Public Health Reports (1974-), 126(Suppl 1), 124-130.

Lee, M., Lee, J., Park, B., & Miyazaki, Y. (2015). Interaction with indoor plants may reduce psychological and physiological stress by suppressing autonomic nervous system activity in young adults: A randomized crossover study. Journal of Physiological Anthropology, 34(1), 21. doi:10.1186/s40101-015-0060-8 Nutsford, D., Pearson, A. L., & Kingham, S. (2013). An ecological study investigating the association between access to urban green space and mental health. Public Health, 127(11), 1005. doi:10.1016/j.puhe.2013.08.016

Lench, H. C., Tibbett, T. P., & Bench, S. W. (2016). Exploring the toolkit of emotion: What do sadness and anger do for us? Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 10(1), 11-25. doi:10.1111/spc3.12229

Malik, S. (2014, ). Research: Workplace plants boost productivity, study says. The Guardian (London, England)

Park, S., & Mattson, R. H. (2009). Ornamental indoor plants in hospital rooms enhanced health outcomes of patients recovering from surgery. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine (New York, N.Y.), 15(9), 975-980. doi:10.1089/acm.2009.0075

Plutchik, R. (2001). The nature of emotions. American Scientist, 89(4), 344.

Reklaitiene, R., Grazuleviciene, R., Dedele, A., Virviciute, D., Vensloviene, J., Tamosiunas, A., Nieuwenhuijsen, M. J. (2014). The relationship of green space, depressive symptoms and perceived general health in urban population. Scandinavian Journal of Public Health, 42(7), 669-676. doi:10.1177/1403494814544494

Sahlin, E., Ahlborg, G., Matuszczyk, J. V., Grahn, P., Institutionen för individ och samhälle, Högskolan Väst, & Avd för psykologi och organisationsstudier. (2014). Nature-based stress management course for individuals at risk of adverse health effects from work-related stress-effects on stress related symptoms, workability and sick leave. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 11(6), 6586-6611. doi:10.3390/ijerph110606586

Sobnqwi, E., Mbanya, J., Unwin, N. C., Porcher, R., Kengne, A., Fezeu, L.,… Alberti, K. (2004). Exposure over the life course to an urban environment and its relation with obesity, diabetes, and hypertension in rural and urban Cameroon. International Journal of Epidemiology, 33(4), 769-776. doi:10.1093/ije/dyh044

Sturm, R., & Cohen, D. (2014). Proximity to urban parks and mental health. The Journal of Mental Health Policy and Economics, 17(1), 19

Ulrich, R. S. (1983). Aesthetic and affective response to natural environment. In I. Altman & J. Wohlwill (Eds), Human Behaviour and Environment: Vol. 6. Behaviour and Natural Environment (pp. 85-125). doi:10.1007/978-1-4613-3539-9_4

Ulrich, R. S. (1984). View through a window may influence recovery, Science, 224(420), 420-421. doi:10.1126/science.6143402

Ulrich, R. S., Simons, R. F., Losito, B. D., Fiority, E., Miles, M. A., & Zelson, M. (1991). Stress recovery during exposure to natural and urban environments. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 11(3), 201-230. doi:10.1016/S0272-4944(05)80184-7

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