A new study finds that even a small plant on your desk can have a calming effect.
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There’s something about greenery, from a sprawling forest to a few houseplants, that makes us just feel more relaxed, focused, and calm. Plenty of recent research has shown how spending time in nature and gardening is good for our mental health, but can plants help tame stress at work, where many of us spend a significant amount to time every day? A new study from Japan, published in the journal of HortTechnology, found that even just a small plant on your desk can work wonders. 

overhead shot of a desk with hands on a laptop with succulents, coffee and a cell phone
Credit: Cavan Images/Getty Images

Japanese workplace culture is notoriously stressful; office employees there get the least amount of sleep of any similarly developed nation’s workers, and there’s even a term for working oneself to death. (It’s “karoshi.”) This seems to make Japan a pretty good place to test out if a plant in the office can measurably reduce the stresses of the proverbial rat race.

The study followed 63 Japanese non-managerial office workers at an electric company over a period of five weeks. For the first week (five working days), they were told to take a three-minute break from office tasks twice during the work day. Then, they were each given a plant of their choice to place near their computer monitor and asked to “gaze intentionally” at it during their twice-daily breaks over the next four weeks. They also were taught how to care for their plants, and allowed to water them during their breaks if desired.

The workers all wore heart-rate monitors and were given a standard anxiety test, known as the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory, which asks a bunch of questions to figure out how anxious a person is. Anxiety levels according to this test, paired with heart rate, is how this study measured how much stress the workers were feeling.

The plants definitely had a positive effect! During the one-week control period, only three individuals, or about 5% of the group, showed significantly decreased heart rates after simply taking their three-minute breaks (most showed no change in heart rate). By comparison, 17 people, or 27% of the group, had lower heart rates after looking at their desk plant. As for that anxiety test, the researchers wrote: “These results suggest that placing small plants chosen by the participants within close sight of them contributed to their psychological stress reduction regardless of their age or plant choice.”

The workers were given a wide variety of plants to choose from, including bonsai trees, small cacti, philodendrons, dracaenas, and succulents. All seemed to have the same effect, indicating that it's not so much what the plant looks like, but more that it's there at all. In addition to experiencing a temporary relief from work-related stress, many of the workers reported other benefits such as keeping their desks more clutter-free to make room for the pots, and feeling more bonded with coworkers because of their common interest in the plants. 

So, go ahead and find a spot in your workspace where you can park a new potted friend. Then, remember to take a brain break once in a while and rest your eyes on its leafy loveliness for a few minutes.

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