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The Role of Biophilia in Workplace Health and Wellbeing

By Tracie McKelvie, TJM Occupational Health and Wellbeing

Published 12 September 2023


The Mental Health Foundation share a consensus view that nature can generate positive emotions, such as calmness, joy, and creativity.


A Mental Health Foundation report highlighted our relationship with nature, and noticing, thinking about, and appreciating our natural surroundings is critical in supporting good mental health, and preventing distress. If allowed, nature permits us to momentarily lose ourselves in an innocent but reflective “fantasy” of speculative fiction involving magical elements that occasionally interrupts our thoughts.

Nature (or elements thereof) is an appealing environment to enhance and improve our mental wellbeing. When we are exposed to, or when we think about nature, our five senses are stimulated and tentatively teased in such a way that when “activated”, helps us to perceive and interact with our environment. This encourages creative thinking and allows us an objective perception of reality. – which in turn allows us to absorb, understand, and process information from our surroundings.

In the right surroundings, this can exude positive reactions and emotions that are difficult to ignore – regardless of how we are feeling at that moment in time. Our five senses are intricately connected to our emotions and memories 4. They can considerably influence how we feel and respond to certain situations.

The process of converting stimuli can be experienced from the body’s senses, such as touch, sight, sound, and/or from chemical senses, such as taste and smell. Beyond the five senses, we can also sense a lot more within our environments. For example, we can (intuitively) tell how hot or cold it is, we can feel pain, and we can sense how our body is positioned. Even though we may not always be as aware of these other senses as we are of the five main senses, they can still have a significant impact on us 4.

Our “sense” reactions can be from the anticipation of what we may expect, as well as from our reactive responses to the natural elements that are around us. Our senses can influence our health and wellbeing and can have a positive knock effect on how we function and respond. In today’s fast-paced climate, when it comes to our work this can be crucial especially if others are reliant upon us for our expert input, or if we need to make important business decisions.

The Mental Health Foundation share a consensus view that nature can generate positive emotions, such as calmness, joy, and creativity. Exposure to calming and natural environments can help to facilitate concentration and nature connectedness and is also associated with lower levels of poor mental health, particularly lower depression and anxiety 1.

This became more apparent in very recent years when accessibility, and the ability to freely engage with nature was interrupted during the COVID-19 pandemic. This lack of exposure to nature and the outdoors led to increased stress levels amongst those who were forced to stay indoors during several lockdowns. For some, the lockdowns meant that they had little, or no access to environmental greenery, water, and open spaces.

Despite moving on, today’s reality in achieving a positive and balanced exposure to the natural elements during our typical working day/s, or nights can be difficult. Our relationship with other less appealing and less natural surroundings such as a windowless office, darkened/small/noisy/enclosed working spaces, or shift work can have the opposite effect when it comes to supporting good mental health. Whilst nature can mostly be found anywhere, accessibility to high-quality nature spaces are not equally available to everyone in the UK.

So, what is biophilia?

While the Oxford Languages Dictionary defines biophilia as “an innate and genetically determined affinity of human beings with the natural world” the word biophilia originates from the Greek with “philia” meaning “love of.” As humans, we have a deeply ingrained and inherent love of nature which is an intuitive and natural drive imprinted into our DNA.

Biophilic design is a concept used within the building industry to increase occupant connectivity to the natural environment using direct nature, indirect nature, and space and place conditions. Used at both the building and city scale, it is argued that in addition to health benefits, there are also environmental, and economic benefits.  Although its name was coined in recent history, indicators of biophilic design have been seen in architecture from as far back as the Hanging Gardens of Babylon 2.

In terms of health and wellbeing, biophilic design has been found to support cognitive function, physical health, and psychological well-being 3, and the idea of incorporating “biophilic design” into indoor workspace is hoped to encourage the connection between humans and nature, as well as promote staff wellness and productivity.

Common biophilic design elements include skylights, green walls, or living walls covered with living greenery; and the presence and sound of water, such as fountains or ponds.

How can we bring nature indoors?

This is especially important since the increase in home or hybrid working has rocketed over the past few years. But whether we are working from home, from the office, or hot-desking, making small changes to enhance our surroundings can have a significantly positive impact on our mood, and on our general health and wellbeing.

Simply opening blinds or curtains and having access to an open window will complement our “downtime” by allowing us to immerse ourselves in natural light, and the gentle fresh breeze that circulates around us. This open access will also allow us to absorb the natural aromas and sounds of birds chirping, or agricultural processing (such as bailing and ploughing), or even the sound and smell of falling rainwater – although for some, feeling able to take some time out may be more of a challenge.

Other ideas to promote biophilia into our home and/or office working environments could include:

Mimicking, and bringing indoors some of the visuals and aromas that natural elements from the outdoors offer – such as plants, plant and wood smells, earth smells, the smell of freshly cut grass, wild garlic, and freshly growing herbs. It may be that a balcony or deck area could be transformed into a mini “indoor garden.” Or a simpler transformation could involve growing herbs on your kitchen windowsill. Along with the vision of, and smell of freshly growing indoor herbs, there is nothing as lovely as cooking with   fresh, fragrant herbs right from your very own indoor “garden patch.” Herbs such as mint, coriander, thyme, basil, and oregano are very easy to grow in little pots on your kitchen windowsill. All you need is a little fresh air, a bit of sunlight, and some water. Oh, and if you are anything like me, put a label on each to remind you which is which!

Creating a green wall – by simply entwining greenery of choice through a trellis on one wall, or even on a wooden static structure near your workspace, this can create a tranquil and mesmerising statement.

Creating a living wall – with similar effects, this will require a little more planning, and some great tips can be found at  Gardeners World or Age UK

You can incorporate botanical prints – regardless of whether your space is big or small, a statement wall with leafy prints or wallpaper with delicate floral prints can help mimic nature within your indoor environment. Wallcoverings that have textures and colours from outdoors go a long way towards lightening and refreshing a room, but if you are unable to, or you don’t want to go bold with an entire “botanical wall”, photographs or posters will also do the trick!

You can also fill your home, (or where appropriate, your office space) with potted plants. Did you know that besides adding much-needed oxygen, many plants are also known to regulate temperatures and remove pollutants from indoor air. So why not see whether you can slot one or two into a sneaky nook or cranny? Alongside smaller potted plants, leafy tropical palms in large pots are also statement pieces that will invigorate and add movement to tired indoor spaces. You could even add in a lovely fragrant Jasmine hanging plant!

For ideas on suitable indoor plants, you can visit:

12 DIY Indoor Plant Pot Ideas

The Best Indoor Plants For Every Home And Skill Level

Gardeners World Best House Plants

Decorating or adding to your home/office environment with sustainable, organic materials. Some examples could include items like jute rugs (made with a soft natural fibre derived from tropical plants), rubberwood furniture, bamboo blinds, driftwood artifacts, natural material throws, wickerwork lamps, a decorative bowl of organic dried locus pods, or a display of seashell beach décor.

The sound of water. Welcoming the water element into our space and listening to the sound of gently flowing water soothes and refreshes the senses, reduces stress levels, and infuses space with positivity. Just by adding a small tabletop water feature closer to where your working space is can make a world of difference to the energy around you, and it can act as a great enchanting visual too.

Lighting is also an important factor – in addition to promoting well-being, biophilic lighting has been shown to have positive impacts on mood, productivity, and cognitive function 5, 6. As such, the aim would be to achieve varying intensities of light and shadow that change over time in order to mimic the lighting conditions and imagery that we might experience out in nature i.e., following the circadian lighting cycle (the natural sleep/wake cycles of the human body). This is referred to as “dynamic” and “diffuse” lighting.

Examples of dynamic and diffuse lighting are:

Sunlight that filters through clouds or trees

Skylights that allow for natural light

Lamps that adjust their brightness and colour temperature throughout the day

Light fixtures that create patterns or shadows on the walls or ceiling

Ways in which to achieve biophilic lighting in line with the circadian lighting cycle include:

Dynamic control of light intensity, colour temperature, and distribution to imitate natural daylight

White LED lights can adjust colour temperature throughout the day

Designing lighting schemes that highlight patterns, textures, and shapes found in nature

In summary, creating a workplace that facilitates optimal performance and better productivity makes good business sense. This notion is a heavily researched, and talked about topic, and as an employer, getting the best out of people is key for performance and productivity; as an employee, feeling good when at work is also key for health and wellbeing, job satisfaction, and personal performance and productivity.

While the notion of biophilia and how this may be introduced may vary from individual to individual, (depending on personal choice and preferences), the advantages that biophilia can bring to an indoor space appear to be very beneficial in promoting positivity, and in enhancing physical and psychological wellbeing. This in turn impacts favourably on our cognitive functioning.

As individuals, we do have an element of control in terms of considering our working environments, and in making changes – i.e., bringing a little bit of nature indoors. Remember, the smallest of changes can make a significant difference.


  1. Ref: Mental Health Foundation (MHF) 2021, Nature; how connecting with nature benefits our mental health,
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Tracie is an Independent Specialist Nurse Practitioner in Occupational Health, Queens Nurse and Founder of TJM Occupational Health and Wellbeing.

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OH Today Spring 2023
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