I recently attended a wellbeing event run by Centre Parcs called Space to Breathe. The message from the event was clear: spending time outdoors in green spaces is good for employees’ physical and mental health and employers should encourage it during the working day.
As part of the event, fitness instructor Frank Sinclair talked about how exercise can enhance (and hinder) peoples’ mental and physical wellbeing. According to Frank, exercise can stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the rest and digest system, and the sympathetic nervous system, more commonly known as fight or flight.
What employees (and employers) want to do in order to reduce stress and improve physical and mental wellbeing is to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system. This can be done a variety of ways - getting proper rest, meditation, massage, hobbies and gentle activity. At the Center Parcs event, the focus was very much on gentle activity in the form of walking and being in outdoor green spaces.
What about the sympathetic nervous system? This is stimulated by things such as pressure at work, starting a new business, anxiety, bereavement and hard exercise.
The concept of green spaces and exercise being good for us is hardly a new one, but it does easily get lost when we’re all busy working, heads down. Recent research by the University of East Anglia (https://www.uea.ac.uk/about/-/it-s-official-spending-time-outside-is-good-for-you) confirms how important it is for people to get outside and get moving. The research found that exposure to green space reduces peoples’ risk of type 11 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, premature death, preterm birth, stress and high blood pressure.
Employee health and wellbeing is a big issue for employers. We’ve all seen stats such as the one from Mind UK that says one in four people with experience a mental health problem each year. The outdoors could help here. One way is to encourage employees to step outside and enjoy the great outdoors during their working day. And it doesn’t have to be confined to lunchtime either – lots of employees incorporate gentle outdoor exercise into their work routine. So there are walk and talk sessions and there are organisations that hold team meetings outside. Some work activities particularly lend themselves to taking place outside of the office, such as one on one coaching sessions.
I’ve already had a couple of responses to a tweet I shared on this topic, such as this tweet from Gem Dale: “I am coaching specifically on wellbeing, so we are actually out there doing something constructive to it. Gets us both out of the office, gives a different feel to sessions than sitting in a meeting room. Moving the body and mind at the same time.”
There are also these comments from Gill Harvey-Bush: “In my experience, clients open up faster and find it easier to talk about their issues, especially younger clients. They don’t feel under a time pressure to answer because on a walk it’s natural to have silent moments. Some have said that they find it easier to think when around nature. Also, we’re in a neutral environment – so it’s not ‘my’ space or ‘theirs’, with any anchors attached to that. I think this is really beneficial in the corporate world when it’s a discussion between a manager and staff member.”
So, what do you think of green spaces and work? And what are you doing to take work outdoors?!
Center Parcs is also an advocate of something called forest bathing. Big in Japan, where it’s called shinrin yoku, it is a very popular form of nature therapy, and it’s now taking off in the UK. But what is it? It’s when people spend time in a forest to reduce stress and increase feelings of wellbeing. According to a study conducted in Japan in the 1990s, even just 15 minutes spent walking in a forest is enough to lift peoples’ moods and feelings of health.
If you're interested in reading more about the outdoor space session and the lessons from the Center Parcs event, check out these 26 tools to look after your wellbeing.