Could trees be the answer to staff wellbeing?

In the business world, companies are harnessing the power of plants to boost employee wellbeing. Should schools be doing the same?

Grainne Hallahan

Tree Hugging

Once upon a time, James’ classroom overlooked an internal courtyard garden. Then the area was transformed from a garden into storage space for exam desks and James’ windows were removed, along with any chance of natural light.

Now, James can go a whole working week and only come close to plants at the salad bar at lunchtime.

A natural solution 

More teachers than ever before are reporting experiencing insomnia, irritability, mood swings and tearfulness, according to Teacher Wellbeing Index. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that 57 per cent of teachers have considered leaving the sector in the past two years.

So, could it help to change the environments we teach in? Tackling obvious problems, such as crumbling buildings and damp, is vital, of course, but staff wellbeing can also be boosted by a visit to the local garden centre.

Professor Stephen Colarelli, an academic from the psychology faculty at Central Michigan University in the US, has conducted research into how exposure to nature can improve employee wellbeing.

“Most offices are completely devoid of any kind of natural elements,” explains Colarelli. “They’re designed for efficiency: plain rectangular spaces and sometimes without windows.

“In our research, we found that the greater the exposure to nature, the happier people were at work. Exposure to nature also had the effect of buffering the effects of stress on the workers.”


Passing the stress test

Other have also found this link. A 2009 research paper from Australia found that “staff who had plants placed in their offices showed reductions in stress levels and negative feelings of a magnitude of 30 to 60 per cent, while those with no plants recorded increases in stress and negativity of 20 to 40 per cent.” 

Would it be reasonable to believe that these effects could be replicated in schools? Colarelli believes so.

“Schools are designed like office buildings: for efficiency. To be able to instruct large groups and ease movement without much thought to the ambiance or the environment. So I imagine that the effects in schools would be similar to that in offices.”

But according to Colarelli, you can’t rely on plants alone to fix your staff wellbeing issues.

“I’m not saying exposure to nature is a panacea for the problems we have in education, but it is one tool in a toolbox, and it could make schooling and being in school a much better experience for students and teachers,” he explains.

But before you bulldoze the foyer and plant an orchard, you might want to consider some of the more straightforward ways you can harness this effect in your school.

“Window boxes of plants, and simply displaying murals, posters and pictures of nature in classrooms and hallways would all be good interventions that schools could do,” says Colarelli.

Out in the open

If you’re sold on this scenic solution to wellbeing but going green isn’t an option, there are other ways you can harness the positive powers of nature. For starters, there is the Japanese practice of “tree bathing”, known as Shinrin-yoku. This involves going out for woodland walks and spending time with trees.

There are organisations in the UK that offer sessions in Shinrin-yoku. Forest Therapy, in Scotland, will take staff on a nature walk and explain how to get the benefits of nature to make you more relaxed in the classroom.

“Spending time in nature can be very beneficial and in busy jobs it can be very difficult to turn off. We’ve had great feedback from people who have found our nature walks calming and nurturing,” says Caitlin Keddie, founder of Forest Therapy Scotland. “Although I know it is difficult for schools to fit everything in, bringing more nature into the classroom could really improve stress levels for teachers.

“We live in a society where we don’t prioritise a relationship with nature, and even adults would struggle to identify common plants and trees. Spending time outdoors, developing these skills, can improve resilience, boost creativity and reduce feelings of stress,” says Keddie.

How do you know if staff wellbeing is a problem at your school? It’s still something not all teachers feel comfortable talking about. Find out more about Staff Pulse, which enables you to obtain honest, actionable feedback from your team.

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