How to handle work stress: Adding a desk plant can reduce anxiety

Workers' mental health would improve if employers actively encouraged them to take three-minute “nature breaks," the study suggests.
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/ Source: TODAY
By A. Pawlowski

If the first full week back in the office after the holidays seems extra dreadful, there’s a simple prescription to reduce workplace stress: enjoying the company of a small plant.

Office workers who cared for a plant on their desk and gazed at it for a few minutes when they felt tired experienced less anxiety than before they had one, a recent study published in the journal HortTechnology has found. Many also had a lower pulse.

The results suggest workers’ mental health could improve if employers actively encouraged them to take three-minute “nature breaks,” the authors noted. A plant on the desk provides the opportunity for “soft fascination” in the office, giving people the chance to briefly remove themselves from work.

The findings weren’t a surprise to lead author Masahiro Toyoda, a horticultural therapist and associate professor in the graduate school of landscape and management at the University of Hyogo and the Awaji Landscape Planning & Horticulture Academy in Japan.

Humans have an innate need for nature — a special relationship between people and plants known as the biophilia hypothesis, he said.

“We know the scene of beautiful nature or plants calms stress,” Toyoda told TODAY.

“It is important to be away from work even for a short period of time and to look at things which are not associated with work and are likely to cause pleasant, comfortable feelings. That was exactly the plants’ (role).”

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For the study, researchers recruited 63 office workers at a company in Japan. All filled out the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory, a test to measure their anxiety levels before and after having a plant on their office desk.

It was particularly significant that this study was conducted in a true office environment rather than in a lab, said Gary Altman, associate director of the horticultural therapy program at Rutgers University, who was not involved in the research.

The workers' pulse rate — an indicator of stress — was measured twice a day throughout the experiment.

In the first phase of the study, when the workers didn’t yet have a plant, they measured their pulse when they were tired and then again after spending three minutes gazing at their desk. This continued for a week.

In the second phase, after the employees chose a favorite plant for their workspaces and took care of it, they still measured their pulse when they were tired, but the second pulse reading came after spending three minutes “gazing intentionally” at their plants.

After four weeks of having plants and taking brief breaks to look at them, the worker’s anxiety levels “decreased significantly,” the study found. More than a quarter of the workers, about 27%, also had a slower pulse rate.

The health benefits may come from the plant inducing “comfortable feelings,” like beauty and affection, that help a person get away from work-related thoughts, the study noted. Gazing at it “creates separation from stressors,” the authors wrote.

Choosing the plant oneself and taking care of it are an important part of the process, Toyoda said. In other words, just having a random plant that someone else waters doesn’t lead to the same affection and doesn’t have the same therapeutic effect.

“To water the plants and see them growing reinforces our favorable feeling to the plants,” he noted.

“Even if we look at the same plant for a long period of time, we will not get used to or bored by the view.”

Plants can have a calming effect because they're familiar and offer much less complex visual stimuli in a world where people are bombarded by noise, movement and visual complexity, Altman added.

"I absolutely believe that the presence of a plant can have a significant positive impact on an individual's mental health in the work place," he said. "Taking a few minutes to care for a plant or bond with a coworker over a plant can go a long way in regard to employee wellness and productivity."

Toyoda believes the findings are applicable to U.S. workers. Altman and Tina Marie Cade, a horticultural therapist in Texas who was also not involved in the Japanese research, agreed.

“Studies suggest that investing in green interiorscapes is a worthy investment since they can keep employees healthier, happier and potentially even nicer,” Cade, a horticulture professor in the department of agriculture at Texas State University, said.

“We've done studies that also show that a garden helps improve people's self-esteem and instills a sense of pride.”

Toyoda himself follows the study’s prescription: He has an anthurium plant with glossy pink flowers on his desk.

“I often find myself gazing at my favorite plant for more than three minutes unconsciously," he said. "Such a break refreshes and invigorates me in my office."