Kenneth Freeman International Technical Director

12/08/2011

Does where you work make you sick? Do you get headaches, feel nauseous or maybe have dry skin and eyes? Do you take time off work because of a poor environment? If so, you are not alone.

Office plants

As far back as 1984, the World Health Organization published a report that claimed that as many as 30% of new or refurbished buildings caused occupants to suffer symptoms that became known as “Sick Building Syndrome (SBS)”. Common symptoms of SBS, such as itchiness, dry skin, eye and throat irritations, headaches and nausea, seem to be closely related to poor indoor air quality. Often, the presence of volatile organic compounds, mould spores, poor ventilation and badly-adjusted temperatures are blamed.

In many cases, however, the removal or prevention of these supposed causes doesn’t solve the problem. Research carried out over the last quarter century often suggests that there is more to the story than the simple presence of these physical causes: people still feel unwell at work and absenteeism remains high. There are several instances of office workers experiencing symptoms of sick building syndrome where no obvious environmental cause could be found in the first place: air quality is good, the temperature comfortable and the lighting well-adjusted.

We have long known that plants have abilities to remove pollutants and improve indoor air quality - countless academic papers from many sources have shown that. Experiments in offices have shown consistently that complaints of symptoms associated with SBS drop considerably when interior plants were installed to help mediate the poor indoor environment.

You might think that this is turning into an advertisement for the wondrous properties of indoor plants. Well, they are beautiful but are they really the cure for poor air quality? Often the physical changes in the environment after plants were installed were insufficient to explain the magnitude of the benefit experienced. Yet, indoor plants are clearly linked to improved wellbeing in the office and it seems likely that this has a psychological explanation.

For the last five years, researchers at the Universities of Exeter in the UK and Groningen in the Netherlands have been investigating the management of workspace. Research carried out by Dr Craig Knight and his colleagues compared lean spaces with those enriched with - essentially ephemeral - items, like indoor plants or pictures.

Office plants

Such enrichment resulted in increased wellbeing (as measured in terms of workplace comfort, identity, engagement and corporate citizenship behaviour - altruism at work) and productivity (by over 15%). These are clearly impressive findings. Moreover, the effects were magnified when office workers were given a degree of autonomy in the choice of those items. Even a small amount of empowerment over the arrangement of personal workspace resulted in productivity improvements of up to 32%. Again, wellbeing scores went up significantly - one study showed an improvement of approximately 40%.

The precise mechanisms underpinning these effects are unclear. The researchers at Exeter explain many of their findings in terms of identity realization. Craig Knight has developed a powerful model showing clear relationships between the ability of individuals to express something of their own personality at work and performance, comfort, wellbeing, autonomy, altruism and organizational identification.

However, this is not the whole story. Discomfort in many buildings may not necessarily be due to poor ergonomics, bad indoor air quality or even issues of identity realization and lack of autonomy. These are merely symptoms of a greater, more holistic problem: our innate discomfort with the modern world.

At about the same time the WHO described Sick Building Syndrome, the American social biologist, Edward O Wilson, was developing a hypothesis called Biophilia, which he defined as...

"...the innate affiliation people seek with other organisms and especially the natural world."

Wilson found that, when given complete freedom to describe the ideal settings of their homes (and work places), people describe an environment that combines eight key elements:

  1. positioned at height and overlooking the landscape
  2. open terrain with scattered vegetation
  3. being close to open water, such as streams or lakes
  4. refuge and shelter
  5. the use of natural (and local) materials
  6. dynamic and diffuse daylight
  7. visual connections between the interior and exterior
  8. natural odours and scents

Effectively, what has been described is the landscape of our distant ancestors and is the sort of landscape where we instinctively feel at home and safe.

In many modern office buildings, there are significant opportunities to improve psychological comfort and wellbeing of the building’s users through nature-inspired, biophilic design - even in high occupancy open-plan spaces. By using combinations of plants and art (and even fragrances, sound and light effects) - designed in a way that is sympathetic to these eight core design elements, organizations can do much to improve the health and wellbeing of their staff and improve the productivity and financial health of their business.

This article appeared on Practical FM, www.practicalfm.co.uk.

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