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Natural elements can improve job satisfaction, mental health

Study shows subtle workplace changes benefit employees

Contact: Dan Digmann

​​A photo of the beach hanging in your office or computer wallpaper displaying flowers in a field may be helping to improve your job satisfaction and mental health.

A recent study by researchers at Central Michigan University — published in PLOS ONE — investigated the effects exposure to natural elements and direct and indirect sunlight have on employee menta​l health and work attitudes.

"Workers are naturally exposed to high amounts of stress, but changing the work environment to incorporate some elements of nature could help," said lead author Mihyang An, postdoctoral research fellow in CMU's School of Public Service and Global Citizenship.

One important result of the study shows the relationship between exposure to natural elements and job satisfaction is mediated by depressed mood. This suggests exposure to natural elements influences mood and that, in turn, mood influences job satisfaction.

"Existing research shows when people are dissatisfied with their jobs, that spills over into moods," An said. "Our results, however, indicate the opposite, that depressed mood might spill over onto how someone experiences their job. A low mood might actually lead to job dissatisfaction."

An, along with CMU psychologists Stephen Colarelli, Kimberly O'Brien and Melanie Boyajian, received and analyzed data from 444 employees via an online panel from the United States and India. Results showed a possible relationship between subtle elements — such as a potted plant or nature scene on a screensaver or picture — and improved employee moods.

Employers may feel they need an expensive office remodel to expose employees to sunlight, An noted, yet small, inexpensive changes also can be effective.

Other results include:

  • Sunlight had a considerably stronger effect than natural elements on mental health outcomes and was positively related to job satisfaction and organizational commitment; and
  • Greater exposure to natural elements was associated with lower depressed mood and higher job satisfaction and organizational commitment.

"Much of the research on employee health, particularly mental health and other stress-related diseases, has focused on improved management practices and stress-reduction treatments," said Colarelli, a CMU organizational/industrial psychologist. "It is important, however, to also consider the physical work environment as a causal and remedial factor in employee health." 

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