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Mental Health

Workplace Well-Being in a Digital World

Nature-inspired solutions

Rana Van Tuyl

Reprinted from the How’s Work? Life in the Workplace issue of Visions Journal, 2022, 17 (3), pp. 18-19

Stock photo of health care worker sitting alone in nature

We live in an increasingly digital world. Although digital solutions have supported advancements in many industries and our personal lives, they can also leave some of us feeling isolated. I am one of those people.

I started working almost entirely remotely from a home office over two years before the pandemic hit. And I loved it! But as the pandemic stretched into 2021, and with fewer in-person social interactions, I found myself struggling with isolation. From behind my computer screen, I read articles about emerging secondary impacts of the pandemic on individual and collective well-being—like flux syndrome (the ups and downs people experience with COVID-19 waves, as coined by social psychologist Amy Cuddy1), languishing (organizational psychologist Adam Grant’s word for feeling ‘blah’2) and the rise of burnout (wellness expert Jennifer Moss’s alarm-sounding on epidemic-level burnout3).

This got me thinking about the future of work. With increasing numbers of organizations going fully digital or adopting hybrid models, workplace well-being is a vital consideration for the way we work, now and in the future. As difficult as the pandemic has been, I also see how it presents an opportunity to shape workplace environments into more generative and restorative places to be. There are many workplace culture and design factors to consider, and these vary from person to person.

From bold ideas like biomimicry (nature-inspired design and production) and nature-based therapy (a healing modality that connects a person to nature) to something as simple as an outdoor meeting, there are big and small things we can do to positively support our mental health. For me, that has meant turning to nature for inspiration.

Because I often felt drained after long workdays at my computer, I looked for small actions I could take. One was starting my day with a tea or coffee on our deck, looking out at treetops in the neighbourhood and the mountains in the distance. Another was taking lunchtime walks, keenly accompanied by our dog, Mak. These pauses from my digital work environment created space to notice other small things, like the symphony of birds that live, play and sing in the neighbourhood.

Changing my cellphone’s wallpaper background to a “naturescape” reminded me to search for healthier social connections than social media and pandemic news. These small things eventually led to bigger things, like creating healthier boundaries with work and learning from people in my life who are also turning to nature.

Nature-inspired ideas

Get outside: Missing in-person social interactions encouraged me to reach out to a dear friend from elementary school, Brenna Bull. Now a registered nurse, Brenna, too, turns to nature to recharge. “After spending your workdays inside a hospital, clinic room or office, there is something so refreshing about going camping in the fresh air,” she told me recently. “Sitting outside in the crisp, cool air around a crackling fire is just what I need to recharge.” When back on shift, working near a window serves as an amazing mood booster until she can venture out again.

Be awe-inspired: To boost your well-being and creativity, environmental consultant and master’s student Avery Deboer-Smith4 recommends getting out in nature more often. Her research focuses on nature-based awe and the huge impacts this kind of experience can have in our lives. As Avery shared with me, “You don’t have to do something epic to feel the benefits of experiencing awe in nature. Something as simple as appreciating a blooming flower or watching the clouds drift by can greatly improve your feelings of connectedness.”

Bring nature indoors: During a virtual appointment, registered clinical counsellor Genevieve Crinion5 pointed out to me how rooms with lots of square angles (e.g., closed doors, drawn blinds, cubicles) are challenging to spend long days in because they are unlike natural elements that blend, curve and have texture. If your home office is an uninspiring room (as many of ours are), Genevieve recommends adding plants and art with shapes and lines that we find in nature, plus spending part of your day working from the living room, where there is generally more space and natural light.

Nature is us: From her treatment room filled with plants in Vancouver, acupuncturist Leonie Bedet6 thoughtfully expressed to me that, “There’s this idea of escaping into nature, but we are nature.” This way of thinking is not new, but it is sometimes forgotten or even dismissed. With its ability to heal and sustain, nature reminds us that we are all connected. For example, while spending time outside, breathing fresh air and amidst natural sights and sounds, people with opposite views might find it easier to put aside their differences and find common ground.

Through these microbehaviours (small things we do and say), we also create space to be more present and support the mental health of the children and youth in our lives. According to a recent study conducted by UBC,7 spending time in nature and green spaces supports early childhood development. This matters because family mental health can impact our individual capacity to be well personally and at work. From open-air family activities to outdoor learning for children at school, the possibilities are endless. And access to local parks, community gardens, lakes and oceans is free and available to all.

Permitting ourselves to unplug from our digital environments creates space for us to reconnect with nature, care for ourselves and loved ones and free up time to connect with community. When I go for a lunchtime walk with Mak, pause to stretch and enjoy the growing plant collection in my home office or simply sit and take in the horizon at the start or end of my workday, I remember to just breathe. I feel connected to a whole. I recharge and ignite new ideas for what’s to come.

About the author

Rana is a social science researcher and knowledge weaver with special interests in social determinants of health and the intersection of psychological health and safety, with equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI). She is thankful to make her home on Vancouver Island, where nature always awaits her

  1. Cuddy, A., & Riley, J. (2021, August 11). Why this stage of the pandemic makes us so anxious. The Washington Post.
  2. Grant, A. (2021, April 19). There’s a name for the blah you’re feeling: It’s called languishing. The New York Times.
  3. Moss, J. (2021, Feb 10). Beyond burned out. Harvard Business Review.
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  7. UBC News. (2021, Oct 21). Spending time in nature promotes early childhood development.

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