Nature is no longer considered antithetical to the modern workplace, and if we’re serious about employee wellbeing and mental health, and want to really ‘walk the talk’, then adventure and wilderness should be the next frontiers to explore.

Workplace Mental Health

According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, in 2023, staff generally felt positive about the climate of wellbeing in their organisations, being encouraged to speak about their mental health and supported when they do so.

This is brilliant news and testament to the attention and innovation that is being applied to this important sphere by employers up and down the country. However, mental ill health and stress remain among the most common causes of long-term absence from the workplace.

Whilst workplace mental health support is gaining prominence, aiming to destigmatize mental health discussions and provide accessible resources for employees, a recent study found that the most effective way to improve employee mental health is by reducing stress, rather than adding new techniques to cope with it. Getting in front of the problem and tackling stress before it becomes a mental health issue is key.

Over three-quarters of organisations are taking steps to identify and reduce stress, but have you considered some evidence-based methods that would get to the root cause of the problem of stress?

The Workplace and Nature

A 2021 meta-analysis of 50 studies on the impact of nature-based activities on mental health by the University of York found that nature-based interventions were effective for improving mental health outcomes in adults, including for those with pre-existing mental health problems.

We know that incorporating plants, designing windows to give views of green spaces, and even hanging artwork featuring greenery can all have a significantly positive effect on blood pressure, heart rate and mood responses.

Biophilic design goes further than simply adding a few pot plants or a living wall. Designing spaces around sustainable materials, organic shapes and natural light and colours can reduce stress, boost creativity, and enhance overall employer satisfaction.

Getting out into nature might not be possible in every workplace, but the University of Derby has found that the metric that matters most when it comes to eudemonic wellbeing is not contact with but connection to nature. We can probably all relate to the difference between contact and connection; that 10-min break in the park where all you did was inhale your lunch and catch up on emails?

The Derby ‘Finding Nature’ project discovered that meaningful connection to nature is fostered through 5 pathways: senses, beauty, emotion, meaning and compassion. Essentially, making a connection to nature means making it relevant and applicable to our human lives. So just taking a moment to really smell a flower, a leaf, or a handful of soil. Noticing aloud what it is about a view that we find attractive. Naming the emotion that is inspired in us when we see a playful dog or vibrant sunset. Linking aspects of nature to stories, rituals or poems. And setting aside time to give back to nature by volunteering or litter-picking.

The Go-Jauntly app, developed out of the Finding Nature study, provides daily prompts for users to notice three good things in nature every day. Workplaces could encourage employees to take notice of those aspects of nature which are accessible even from indoors. Draw attention to plants, pets and views which enliven the office. Design courtyards or exterior windowsills that attract wildlife, by hanging bird feeders or plants that attract butterflies. Set calendar alerts to remind colleagues of natural cycles. Implement eco-friendly practices and celebrate boosting wellbeing while helping the planet.

If possible, make sure there are spaces to sit and communal areas with nature at their heart. Create wellness gardens or communal outdoor areas where employees can enjoy a moment of respite surrounded by nature. The healing garden at Alnarp in Sweden uses horticultural therapy effectively to rehabilitate employees post burnout, with a 67% return to work rate after just 10 weeks.

Workplaces Walking the Talk

Walk-and-talk meetings have so many benefits to wellbeing, both physical and mental. Walking is a form of low-impact exercise that helps combat sedentary behaviour, improving cardiovascular health, weight management, and overall fitness. Physical activity, even in the form of a leisurely walk, has been linked to stress reduction.

Movement has been shown to stimulate creative thinking and problem-solving abilities. Walk-and-talk meetings can foster a dynamic environment that encourages innovative ideas and collaborative thinking.

Walking side by side, with the removal of the expectation for eye contact, can create a more informal atmosphere compared to traditional meetings, as well as being more accessible for neurodivergent colleagues. This can facilitate open communication and strengthen team relationships, positively impacting the overall workplace culture.

The usually dead metaphors of ‘a shared outlook’, ‘walking alongside’, ‘taking steps’ and ‘moving forwards’ are physically realised when we are in a productive walk-and-talk meeting, turning them from cliché into powerful motivators.

Adventures that Work

Micro-adventures, espoused by British adventurer Alastair Humphreys, are short wild excursions that break the routine of the working week. A typical micro-adventure takes place between 5pm – 9am, and is accessible, affordable and local. And above all, fun!

Examples might be commuting by kayaking once a month, wild camping on a weeknight, booking a twilight parkour session, meeting a colleague for a sunrise breakfast, or joining a local swimming group for a dip in a nearby lake. But an adventure can also be anything outside of your usual routine. So, visiting a late opening at a museum, or walking home rather than taking the bus can be adventures too.

The secret is to pack a change of clothes and shoes, and no-one need ever know. There’s nothing like the thrill of knowing your rucksack and trainers are hidden under your desk waiting for the adventure to begin.

Alternatively, let colleagues know and see who might want to join you! You could run a competition between teams for the wildest mid-week adventure, and share photos on company social media. Encouraging employees to take part in joint micro-adventures is a fantastic way to generate camaraderie and improve interpersonal relations, as well as improving performance and resilience.

Being immersed in unfamiliar and authentic environments, and resolving those situations by, for example, successfully navigating home, leads to better problem recognition and creativity. Micro-adventures can inspire fresh perspectives and foster innovative thinking among team members.

According to neuroscience, proteins such as brain-derived neurotrophic factor are stimulated by moderate physical activity and with repeated stimulation, dampen the fear response allowing individuals to perform better under stress. In optimal conditions of stress, or positive ‘eustress’, such as those faced when rock climbing, the hormone cortisol stimulates memory formation and leads to better performance under future stress. Plus, well-managed stress activates dopamine release, which increases attentional capacity. A balance of cortisol and dopamine in the body protects against negative effects of stress on wellbeing.

Micro-adventures provide a manageable way for employees to integrate leisure and personal interests into their daily lives. This helps promote a healthier work-life balance, preventing burnout and improving long-term job satisfaction. Knowing that brief, exciting experiences are integrated into the work routine can boost employee motivation. Taking short breaks for micro-adventures can actually enhance overall productivity.

Wilderness at Work

The wilderness is a state of mind, not a location. We may not all be able to access remote, unspoilt landscapes near our workplace, but a ‘wild mind’ can be cultivated in the workplace, through spontaneity, awe, humour and mindfulness.

To encourage spontaneity, allow employees flexibility in their work hours and remote working. Encourage impromptu brainstorming sessions where team members can gather spontaneously to discuss ideas, challenges, or innovative solutions. Promote an open-door policy where managers and leaders make themselves accessible for impromptu discussions. Encourage random acts of kindness and gratitude among team members. Occasionally host meetings with no predefined agenda. This gives participants the freedom to bring up topics spontaneously, fostering a more dynamic and open discussion. Implement rotating leadership roles or project ownership. Offer surprise learning opportunities, such as inviting guest speakers or organising skill-building workshops on short notice. This keeps the learning environment dynamic and engaging.

Although we might tell our staff they’re “awesome”, what opportunities do we provide to bring the feeling of awe and wonder into the workplace? We could design the workplace to include art installations, or architectural features that inspire a sense of wonder, or schedule performances or exhibitions that provoke thought. Of course, we should recognise and celebrate significant achievements and milestones. We could also bring in guest speakers or thought leaders who can share inspiring stories or insights. Encouraging a diverse and inclusive workplace that celebrates differences can foster a sense of awe in the richness of human experiences. Encourage employees to pursue and share their personal passions within the workplace.

Humour is of course subjective, but some light-touch injection of humour can improve even the most stressful working day. Encourage playfulness with solution-finding, and genuinely reward creative thinking. Look for team-building initiatives that encourage camaraderie and laughter. Explore improvisation workshops or comedy social events. Use humour as a teaching tool where appropriate, and allow personalisation to email signatures to introduce some levity.

In terms of mindfulness, why not begin the working day, and all meetings, with a short mindfulness ritual? This could be a few seconds of deep breathing, gentle stretching, or a brief meditation to set a positive tone and bring focus to the present moment. Encourage mindful eating by normalising the taking of a proper lunch break or banning the use of laptops in the staff canteen. Set up periodic reminders for employees to take short mindfulness breaks at their desks. Close the workday with a brief mindfulness practice. This could involve reflecting on accomplishments, expressing gratitude, or engaging in a short meditation to help employees transition out of work mode.

And, most importantly, put the wilderness in your pocket. Research has shown that the impact on wellbeing of immersive natural experiences is highest when those experiences are regular, local and relevant. Sure, a once-in-a-lifetime safari might be fantastic, but in terms of wellbeing, a weekly walk exploring a new local park is better. Pocket-sized exposure to frequent unstructured nature connection opportunities increases employee mood, focus and creativity.

So let nature in, let people out, and let’s tackle workplace wellbeing at its roots, with the ameliorating impact on stress of all things wild!

Julia Sands
Founder at ipse wilderness | Website | + posts
Julia Sands, Founder of ipse wilderness. 'Journey inside, outside'. Julia is a therapeutic adventure leader, wilderness therapy facilitator and educator who curates powerful immersive experiences in nature for teens, teams and adults, to support well-being and personal development goals.