The Human-Nature Connection: Bringing Benefits from the Forest to the Workplace

James stood on the trail, closed his eyes and took a deep breath. The knot under his shoulder blade seemed to grab the breath and put the brakes on. He exhaled, and noticed the tightness in his jaw. His thoughts kept churning. Project reports due. Evaluations to review. Worries about his mother’s health. Then he tuned in again to the instructor’s voice. “Bring your attention to the sounds around you.”

James listened to the wind playing through the tree branches. He heard birdsong, and felt as if the notes danced lightly across his breastbone. He heard the fallen leaves rustling with the breeze. “Focus on the sensation of touch.” James noticed the contours of the path underfoot; felt the wind tickling his hair; soaked up the warmth on his skin as the clouds parted and the sun burst upon the forest trail.

Photo: M. Amos Clifford, www.nftg.org

Photo: M. Amos Clifford, www.nftg.org

After several more minutes of noticing sensations, the instructor invited the group to open their eyes. James looked around. He saw, as if for the first time, the beauty in the ridges and furrows on tree bark…the shifting shapes of clouds…the curve of a milkweed pod. His jaw was relaxed, and each breath flowed slowly and deeply.

“Wow. That was as good as an afternoon at a spa,” he remarked afterwards.

James was on a Forest Wellness Walk with his colleagues and had just experienced a powerful reminder of the positive effect of time in nature. Forest Wellness Walks, (or forest therapy walks) are gentle, guided walks in forests and other natural environments offering an evolving series of interactions with nature for the purpose of sensory immersion and well-being. More and more scientific research supports the case that making time for nature — in our personal lives and through the workplace – offers substantial health benefits and can help employees be more positive and productive.

Florence Williams, prize-winning author of The Nature Fix, explains that within five minutes of being in a forest, your heart rate slows, your facial muscles relax, your frontal lobe (the thinking and planning part of your brain) quiets down. Research shows that the smell of pine trees strengthens your immune system. When you hear birdsong, your brain produces more alpha waves, bringing a sense of being both calm and alert. A slow walk in nature reduces “rumination” – the kind of thinking associated with depressive conditions — and increases feelings of vigour and a sense of connection with other people.

How does this apply to the workplace? To address issues like burn-out and absenteeism and high stress levels, health advocates encourage approaches like yoga and mindfulness meditation, yet those approaches don’t appeal to everyone. A slow walk in a park or by a river is less demanding and may be more accessible, and has comparable benefits.

Not only can time in nature help people show up for work – it can help them be fully present and more effective when they’re there. As Williams writes: “Scientists are quantifying nature’s effects…on our ability to think – to remember things, to plan, to create, to daydream and to focus – as well as on our social skills.” It shakes the cobwebs out of our brains, helps us access different kinds of intelligences, and helps bring a fresh approach to problem-solving.

While some groups offer challenging wilderness programs for professional development and team-building, there’s no need to persuade your team to rappel off a cliff to share nature’s benefits. A simple lunchtime stroll in a nearby park, or a meeting around a picnic table in an outdoor courtyard, can shift the energy and offer new perspectives. For something in between, Nature and Forest Therapy guides offer one- to three-hour Wellness Walks that can be part of a workplace retreat, team building activities or in-house health and wellness programs. The trails for these walks are not only in wilderness, but can be in “nearby nature”, on the edges of urban areas.

nature, wellness, walk

Photo: M. Amos Clifford, www.nftg.org

Even choosing nature images for your workplace walls has a positive effect. Here’s a small experiment to try. Pause and note how you’re feeling right now. How’s your breathing, your tension level? Now, if you can see trees close by out your window, go have a look, or look at the photo above. Gaze softly at the trees or the photo for 2-3 minutes, breathing deep slow breaths and just taking in the image. We’re betting you’ll feel better afterwards.

Contact us to find out how to integrate nature Wellness Walks into your next retreat or team building activity and experience for yourself how nature can contribute to more focused, creative thinking and greater resilience in the workplace.

Written by Kathleen Connelly and Andrea Prazmowski.

Kathleen Connelly is Senior Consultant and Facilitator with Intersol Group. Andrea Prazmowski is a writer and independent facilitator. Both are certified guides with the Association of Nature & Forest Therapy Guides & Programs. http://natureandforesttherapy.org/

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