There are a lot of suggestions out there for what to do when you’re feeling stressed out at work—take a midday exercise break, go barefoot, ask for help. But if those don’t work, or you can’t fit them into your day, one possible solution to easing office stress, according to a new study, is as simple as getting a plant for your desk and occasionally gazing at it.
Plenty of studies have extolled the virtues of being surrounded by greenery. Researchers at the University of Hyogo in Awaji, Japan, wanted to answer one specific question, though: Can plants reduce stress even in a soulless, sterile office setting? “Modern people spend more time indoors than outdoors while they are awake. For many business persons, ‘the indoor environment’ is likely to be ‘the office setting’ rather than ‘inside their houses,'” lead author Masahiro Toyoda says over email. “Now is the time it is essential to verify the stress recovery effect by plants in the office.”
Rather than conducting their experiment in a lab, Toyoda and his team brought indoor plants right into a real office. The study, which was recently published in the journal HortTechnology by the American Society for Horticultural Science, focused on 63 workers who used desktop PCs in open-floor plan offices. Researchers measured these workers’ psychological stress by recording their pulse in the morning and afternoon, and their physiological stress using the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI), which assesses anxiety by having someone self-report how they feel in response to a series of prompts.
Participants picked a plant from six options (an air plant, a bonsai, a San Pedro cactus, a foliage plant like a parlor palm or philodendron, a kokedama or Japanese moss ball, or a succulent). In the control phase, they measured their pulse when they felt fatigued during the workday, took a break to “intentionally gaze” at their desktops for three minutes, and then took their pulse again. The second phase, for which they received instructions on how to water and care for their chosen plants, the workers took their pulse, intentionally gazed at their new greenery for three minutes, and took their pulse again.
And it worked—for some participants at least. Seventeen out of the 63 participants had a decrease in pulse when they could gaze at their plant compared to when they didn’t have a plant in view, and overall STAI scores dropped, meaning a decrease in self-reported anxiety after the plants’ intervention. More than half of participants also submitted positive feedback about their new deskmates and the psychological, physical, social, and work environment-related benefits they sparked. Having the plant at their desk was deemed “passive” involvement, but the study participants also had the chance to have an “active involvement” with their plants by caring for them, which meant they were able to get up and walk around during the workday to get water, or socialize with coworkers by chatting about their plants.
“Some workers who are conscious of the existence of the plants receive the benefits of passive involvement with the plants, that is, just by working in the office setting with plants, but others do not. To build interactive relationships with the plants through intentionally having opportunities to gaze at and taking care of them would bring more workers a sustained and solid stress recovery effect,” Toyoda says. “We are likely to get accustomed/bored to the scene with the same plants, but some active involvement such as selecting favorite plants, watering helps us keep [a] favorable feeling to the plant.”
The bad news, though, is that when their plants weren’t thriving, or had issues like mold or insects, workers then became a bit troubled. If a plant withered over the course of the four weeks, researchers replaced it quickly.
Your office manager may not replace a withered pothos on your desk if you forget to water it, but still, getting a plant and taking a quick break to avert your eyes from your computer to greenery could do everyone in the office some good. “Now is the time for everyone to re-realize that humans have been living with plants since the ancient time,” Toyoda says. “Just as everyone intakes plants as a source of body nourishment, managers need to think of installing plants in the office as a source of mental nourishment.”