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What does your office window view do for you?

Seeing green – a balm for the soul?

KathrynIHURER PhD researcher Kathryn Gilchrist discusses some of the findings from her ESRC-funded research on the value of workplace greenspace for employee health and wellbeing.   Focusing here on visual access to nature from the workplace, she explores the impact of window views on wellbeing and why not everyone benefits from views of some types of greenspace. 

If you’re reading this in your office stop for a moment and look out of the window.  Really – take a few seconds and have a good look. What can you see?  Trees, grass, bushes and flowers?  Or just buildings, streets, parked cars?  Many people value having a view of nature at work, but does it really matter in the grand scheme of things?

International evidence suggests that it does.  Nature in window views has been empirically linked to various outcomes such as higher job satisfaction, reduced absenteeism, higher productivity, lower stress levels and greater ability to cope with stress at work, and more positive social interactions between colleagues as well as greater overall mental wellbeing.  This is thought to occur as a result of nature’s influence in promoting psychological restoration from states of stress and mental fatigue.

Seeing green – a balm for the soul?

Seeing green – a balm for the soul?

My ongoing research is the first study of these potential benefits of green views in UK workplaces.  Based on a survey of over 360 employees in periurban business sites across Scotland’s Central Belt I found, in line with the international evidence, that having views of certain types of vegetation was associated with higher wellbeing levels amongst these knowledge-sector employees.   In the sample as a whole, the prominence of trees, lawn, bushes and flowering plants in an employee’s window view were each significantly linked to wellbeing levels, as measured using the short version of the Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Well-being Scale (SWEMWBS).   Furthermore, although greater visual access to these vegetation features appears to promote employee wellbeing, seeing built features like buildings and car parking doesn’t seem to have a commensurate negative effect.  In other words, it seems to be the presence of nature in workplace window views that’s the important factor here, not the absence of built forms.  This points to a great potential for sensitive planning and landscape design to promote wellbeing in built environments like knowledge-sector business sites where high demands on attention can mean opportunities for psychological restoration are particularly valuable.

Open space at Heriot-Watt University Research Park

Open space at Heriot-Watt University Research Park

How subjective is this relationship between views and wellbeing though? Is it a case of beauty being in the eye of the beholder, as it were, with any scene you finding pleasing likely to do you good? Well, from this research the answer to that is both yes and no.  On the one hand, mediation analyses of the relationships between green view features, ratings of satisfaction, and wellbeing outcomes shows that although some of the apparent benefit of viewing trees and mown grass is explained by individuals’ satisfaction with the quality of their window view, it doesn’t explain it all.  Even when controlling for subjective satisfaction there is still a significant relationship between these objective view features and employee wellbeing – regardless of whether employees even liked their window view, seeing more trees and grass was associated with higher wellbeing.

On the other hand, one of the most interesting findings in this study hints that subjective perceptions about the value of the particular vegetation types in view may influence the psychological benefits of nature in office window views.   I found that not everyone appeared to benefit from seeing some green but not so ‘natural’ landscape features.  Those working in organisations whose activities focus on environmental protection, management and/or research did not show evidence of wellbeing benefits from viewing mown grass or bushes and flowering plants (which in this context tends to mean hardy non-native perennials).  These more artificial landscape features in the open space of the case study business sites had, if anything, a slight negative effect on wellbeing for this group.   Any interpretation of this finding is purely speculative, but perhaps it’s the case that individuals’ ecological knowledge and/or values moderate their psychological responses to the landscape in designed open spaces.   There was, however, no such interaction effect when it came to the prominence of trees, which suggests that all groups can benefit from seeing more trees in their office window view.

These findings have significance to Scotland’s agenda for promoting the multiple benefits of green infrastructure.   The Scottish Government has demonstrated a commitment to promoting health and wellbeing through environment in Good Places Better Health, and the establishment of the Central Scotland Green Network (CSGN) in the second National Planning Framework seeks to support the delivery of environmental goods to promote economic growth and productivity in the Central Belt, as well as supporting the physical and mental-wellbeing of the workforce in the region.   This research adds to a growing Scottish evidence base on the value of greenspace for health and wellbeing; it complements recent research in residential environments as part of the Scottish Government funded GreenHealth project by shedding light on the health impacts of greenspace in the context of Scottish workplaces.  As recognised in the vision set out for the CSGN, if green infrastructure can help workers to feel good and function well this can result in benefits not just to people but to business too.

Watch this space for future blog posts on other findings from this project e.g. on the effects of spending time in greenspace during the working day.  To keep up to date with future publications on this work you can follow me on Twitter @kat_gilchrist.

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