Jonathan Gawthrop: How to plant the seeds of wellbeing in your office

The level of business productivity in the UK and in particular that delivered by UK office workers continues to appear on the news agenda as a concern, but its broader link to holistic employee health and wellbeing is not always clear.

If you are like the majority of UK office workers, who spend up to nine hours a day at your desk, you may not fully realise the effects that your environment can have on your productivity and general wellbeing.

The good news is that simple changes to office design and perhaps more surprisingly, the use of plants, can make a huge difference. Not only are they nice to look at, but they can greatly contribute to the health, well-being and the overall outputs of those who are in offices day after day.

A natural fit

At first glance, the benefits of adding plants to an office may appear hard to quantify. It is however, already a growing area of research, and is being studied around the world with compelling results. First introduced by biologist E. O. Wilson, biophilia (meaning love of nature) proposes a hypothesis that as humans we possess an innate affinity to connect with the natural world. Reasons why being around natural settings improves employee’s wellbeing includes:

  • Improved reported health and overall happiness
  • Reduced energy costs
  • Increased productivity of those working in the buildings


A white paper by Ambius, who create commercial spaces points to research by Stephen Kellert who identifies six elements of biophilia (and over 70 sub-elements) that could be incorporated into the design of buildings. Many of these relate to the structure and architecture of buildings, and are thus difficult to incorporate into existing structures, but others are much easier to integrate into existing spaces with very little cost.

Three ways to incorporate nature into your office space

There have been many attempts to distil Wilson’s theories into a set of design principles that can be incorporated into office environments and these vary from entire live walls to simpler design tweaks such as potted plants and more natural lighting. Here are three ways to incorporate biophilic designs into your workspace:

1. Customise individual spaces with potted plants

A number of studies into hospital and hospice environments show that being able to personalise an environment contributes to a significant increase in wellbeing. However, these effects can be clearly seen across office studies too. A study by Echo Research, conducted for Ambius in 2008, showed that if employers made more of an effort to improve work place surroundings, 62 per cent of US workers said they would be more motivated. In addition, workers felt they would be up to 30 per cent more productive in a more attractive work environment.

Further findings showed that as many as 25 per cent of American office workers found their work places to be gloomy or depressing. Cramped and noisy work environments with no natural light, greenery or ventilation are the ingredients of many gloomy or depressing work environments.

With a 30 per cent productivity improvement at stake, the costs of not providing workers with naturally lit environment, windows they can open and some simple potted plants could be high indeed.

2. Use a combination of plants and art to improve well being

Studies by Edward O Wilson consistently show that when people are asked to describe the ideal location for their home or work place, being able to look out over a landscape features as one of the top three most important factors. While re-creating the illusion of overlooking a landscape in an open office can be a difficult task, it may be easier than you think to recreate through the use of high hanging plants and strategically placed artwork.

Taller buildings can also offer a view over an atrium rather than to the outside world, a perfect opportunity to provide a view over a landscape that will provide many additional benefits. As well as the aesthetic and psychological benefits associated with the presence of nature indoors, we also know that high-quality planting in atriums can play a useful role in controlling the indoor climate and air quality.

3. Think, feel and sound

When talking about making the connection with nature through office design, there are two features which are less thought of but can make a big difference: incorporating natural textures and controlling how the environment sounds. The former, can be brought in the form of natural wood and stone surfaces and finishes like shelves, desks and pillars. The latter means ensuring the office environment is neither too quiet or too loud in order to reduce distractions and improve productivity. Features such as noise absorbing acoustic panels to help with busy road sounds and the introduction of ‘natural sounds’ such as a water feature, have also been linked to improved employee wellbeing and a 37 per cent acceleration in psychological restoration.

As you can see, there are a number of ways to incorporate biophilic design into the office, from sound and aroma filled spaces to quiet break out areas. This can complement a well thought out wellbeing strategy which should centre around creating a fully optimised office environment.

The key is to work with your facilities manager to understand your office limitations such as light, temperature and even the physical office space itself to combine the features and choices that work best for your office and employees. Creating a ‘well-building’ is no longer a ‘nice-to-have’ – it can unlock realms of possibilities for your business if the right seeds are planted.





As director of Health Safety & Wellbeing at EMCOR UK, Jonathan Gawthrop acts in a senior advisory capacity to the UK Executive on behaviour change, health, safety and wellbeing, and is the lead of the organisation’s national health & safety forum. He is NEBOSH qualified and a specialist member of IIRSM, holds a Master’s degree in Behaviour Change (health and wellbeing), and is preparing to undertake a Ph.D. Jonathan acts as a Governor for Sense College and is an independent verifier for the Mayor of London’s Healthy Workplace Charter, as well as an Advisory Board member for Mad World Forum.