Walking in nature can boost worker productivity

Last modified January 28, 2021. Published January 28, 2021.
Spending time in green space is good for your brain. (Unsplash/Thao Le Hoang)

Spending time in green space is good for your brain. (Unsplash/Thao Le Hoang)

Stress, especially that related to work, is a global issue that can create severe mental and physical health problems and have a profound economic impact as a result of impacts on productivity. But a new study out of Japan suggests that such work stress can be significantly mitigated by simply spending time in a green space, such as a park or forest.

This study, recently published in Public Health in Practice, was borne out of a desire to tackle mental health issues at Japanese workplaces, according to lead researcher Shinichiro Sasahara of the University of Tsukuba. The research notes that Japan’s economic loss related to depressive disorders is estimated to be about 2.7 trillion JPY (about USD $26 billion) annually.

In the United States, approximately 6-7% of full-time workers experienced major depressive disorder within the past year, leading to a total economic burden of $210 billion annually. Nearly half of that figure is attributed to missed days from work and a lack of productivity while at work.

The study used data from more than 6,000 Japanese workers between the ages of 20 and 60 from the Tsukuba Research Park, which is located about 37 miles northeast of Tokyo. Participants were measured on their “sense of coherence,” which comprises three related components: meaningfulness, or the feeling that there is meaning in life; comprehensibility, or the ability to recognize stress; and manageability, or the feeling that an individual has enough resources to deal with the stress in their life. A higher SOC score is indicative of better mental health and a stronger ability to cope with stress, according to the researchers.

Given the fact that Tsukuba Research Park is rich with green space, the researchers wanted to investigate if that green space might have an impact on workers in the area, Sasahara said.

“Since spending a long time in a closed space such as an office is close to sensory deprivation, we believe that a green space that stimulates a wide range of the five senses can easily balance the brain,” Sasahara added. “Just as muscles that are not used by a bedridden person deteriorate, I believe that if the areas of the brain that are used unevenly, the areas of the brain that are not used will deteriorate in the same way.”

Participants were divided into four groups based on their frequency of time spent walking in green spaces, which was then measured against their SOC scores. The study found that on the whole, those with the highest SOC had a strong correlation with spending time walking in a green space or a forest at least once a week.

The findings suggest that there is a significant mental and resulting economic benefit from workers spending time walking in a green space, which requires no special skills or equipment.

The study notes that Japan has forests occupying 67% of its landmass, and other green spaces such as parks have been expanding every year. But even workers in areas that do not have easy access to green spaces can likely benefit from time spent outside, Sasahara said.

“If we assume that it is effective if we can gently stimulate our senses outside of green spaces, it is possible that leaving our seats during breaks and taking fresh air on rooftops or in nearby public spaces or parks may also be effective,” Sasahara said.

Employers may also be able to provide a mental health benefit for their workers by creating an indoor break space that emulates certain aspects of nature and the outdoors.

“By using plants and natural wood that stimulate the five senses in such places, I think it may be easier to regulate the balance of the brain,” Sasahara said.

Sasahara noted that a grant had been received to conduct further research into the relationship between nature and an individual’s mental health, and that the researchers will be investigating the changes in brain function when someone is exposed to nature.

The study, “Association between forest and greenspace walking and stress-coping skills among workers of Tsukuba Science City, Japan: A cross-sectional study,” was published on Jan. 3 in Public Health in Practice. It was authored by S. Sasahara, T. Ikeda., D. Hori, Y. Arai, K. Muroi, Y. Ikeda, T. Takahashi, N. Shiraki, S. Doki, Y. Oi, E. Morita, and I. Matsuzaki, all of the University of Tsukuba.

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