Illustration by Justin Tran

Distributed work

The ideal home office sanctuary, according to science


Published on May 28, 2020

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In the 80s, Japan’s tech economy soared. But as millions around the world enjoyed new delights like music that could walk with you and cartoons that were guided by your thumbs, Japanese workers toiled behind the scenes. Emergency room doctors noticed a rise in young, otherwise healthy folks suffering from starvation, strokes, and other stress-induced conditions that were sometimes fatal. People were literally killing themselves with work—a phenomenon that became known as karōshi, “overwork death.” 

In response, the government launched a hotline for the work-sick and required corporations to conduct health checks on employees who logged long hours. Companies instituted flexible telecommuting policies so people could better juggle work with responsibilities at home, and they banned overtime on certain days. One doctor, Dr. Qing Li of the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, introduced a powerfully simple treatment for this crushing burnout: forest bathing.

Forest bathing isn’t simply a hike, though it requires trading an urban setting for the woods. An extension of mindfulness, the practice requires bathing your senses in the environment—feeling the grooves of bark on your fingertips, taking deep breaths to smell the fragrance of trees, and listening to leaves quivering in the wind. One would be encouraged to go ahead and hug a tree…or go a step further, lying back-flat on the forest floor to admire komorebi, the entrancing way branches filter light in the sky. 

While this might sound radically hippy-dippy, studies show he was on to something, as a few hours of this meditative exploration reaps profound effects. Blood pressure coasts downward, sleep quality improves, and, more surprisingly, a group of participants who worked in urban corporate offices experienced an immune system boost. Inhaling phytoncides, the aromatic compounds from trees that make the forest smell so nice, doubled the presence and activity of white blood cells known to fight cancer. Those positive effects lingered for a month, too.

Forest bathing hasn’t cured the overworked population of Japan by any means—high numbers of karōshi-related death remain a pressing social issue, while one in four companies report employees logging over 80 hours of overtime a month—but the stress-reducing practice has grown in popularity and gained traction globally. Forest Therapy programs have launched everywhere from California and Costa Rica to New Zealand and Kenya. 

And similar therapies have begun to emerge. In Scotland, doctors now formally prescribe nature walks for high blood pressure and anxiety and encourage patients to interact with the surroundings, whether that means staring at gulls or picking up driftwood. Other doctors in the UK are promoting the feelings of happiness that “blue space”—bodies of water—can lure. “To go to the sea is synonymous with letting go,” Catherine Kelly, a nature researcher, told the Guardian in November of last year. “There is this really human sense of: ‘Oh, look, there’s the sea’ and the shoulders drop.”

Of course, your reaction to all this about now could be “so what?”. Before lockdowns swept the world, the EPA estimated Americans spent 93% of their time indoors, and that 7% has certainly receded lately. Maybe you can’t drive to the forest or the beach or anywhere wild at all because you don’t have a car. Or perhaps you’re under a true quarantine, one where you’re alone and can’t walk out the front door. No matter what shade of 2020 restrictions you're living under, science says you can still benefit from the natural world.

On solitude

There’s good news but the bad stuff first. There’s evidence as to what social deprivation does to us over time and, you know, it’s not great. It causes stress of all different kinds—agitation, confusion, and depression. It can shrink the part of the brain responsible for making memories, and grow the part responsible for fear and anxiety. For some, it can impair facial recognition, while others conjure faces in inanimate patterns. And then, anecdotally, there are the endless Instagrams of solo dwellers anthropomorphizing everything from statues to backyard rats. Not interacting with life outside of our own isn’t just crazy boring. It starves us of something profound.

In one study on isolation, neuroscientists looked at prisoners in solitary confinement. The study’s author, an ecologist named Dr. Nalini Nadkarni whose work often restores nature where it’s lost, was curious how the participants would respond to one additional stimulus: simulated time outdoors. Prisoners watched 45-minute videos of ecological wonders—kaleidoscopic reefs, rolling waves, forests teeming with life, and other images of the expanse outside the confines of their four white walls. 

No matter what shade of 2020 restrictions you're living under, science says you can still benefit from the natural world.

Over the course of a year, they tracked moods, stress levels, and incidences of violence. While some researchers worried the videos might cause the inmates more stress, reminding them of physical experiences outside their grasp, it did the opposite. Most felt gratitude. 80% reported the screenings contributed to a greater sense of calm, and the effect wasn’t just a feeling. Compared to the control group, the video viewers were 26% less inclined toward aggression. 

Some prisons have begun rolling out similar technology to solitary confinement centers and general inmate populations in hopes of preventing violence towards guards and other inmates, the kind of behavior that leads to solitary confinement in the first place. Dr. Nadkarni and her team also hope to apply these findings to other populations who experience nature-deprivation that is less extreme than a 80-square-foot cell—people who work in toll-booths, factories, and windowless office settings; people who live in nursing homes, military barracks, or cities without access to parks; even astronauts who float through space. 

But what about those of us working from home in everything from kid-filled homes to tiny studios? 

The great indoors

Binging Planet Earth is seldom a bad idea, but there are practical, evidence-based practices besides more screen-time that could improve how you feel, think, and work during shelter-in-place. 

For her book The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative, journalist Florence Williams synthesized the wealth of global research being done on the link between cognition and the environment. While she says two hours a week exploring physical nature is ideal and can have profound effects, even smaller doses of natural elements indoors can do favorably funny things.

“For instance, natural daylight is like 10 to 100 times brighter than artificial daylight and affects our circadian rhythms.” So along with logging those precious walks in the morning to regulate your sleep cycles, orient your desk closer to a window. “Look outside it when you remember or just add a ‘Look up!’ reminder to your phone. These moments are a kind of micro-restoration for your brain and seem to boost creativity and productivity.”

Those breaks could include cracking open the window, reaching for binoculars, and scanning the sky. “Something happens when we hear birds, something deeply evolved in us,” Williams says, as a flock sings in the background of our call. “There’s no predator around, there’s no big storm coming, all is right with the world.” In the absence of a window, you can always fall back on the loon and sparrow calls from a white noise app. 

More curiously, that cascading fern or Fiddle-leaf Fig in the corner of wherever-your-office-is may provide more than fresh oxygen and aesthetic delight. “Psychologists have seen that people perform better as teams and give away more lottery tickets if they’re surrounded by houseplants,” she says. “Nature allows us to access feelings of communitarianism and behave in pro-social ways.” That is, the presence of plants might encourage compassion toward your distributed teammates, your community, and beyond. Before you lament the days of yore when you could just walk into a shop and pick up plant, check if your local plant store is doing deliveries or browse the troves on Bloomscape. Your purchase may, in fact, contribute to this overall feeling that things are stuck together by some curious cosmic glue.

“In nature, you feel more connected to the world around you, but you also feel more connected to other people, which it not so intuitive,” she says. “People just feel less lonely when they’re connected to the natural world.”