Plants at Work- The Science Behind How Plants Improve Life Indoors

We, as an industry, nearly always tote the benefits of interior plants, and I’m here to tell you that it’s not just bullshit: there are measurable effects in the way people think, behave and feel when they are in an environment that contains plants versus one that does not, and plants actually are able to clean the air we breathe.

Instead of doing what everyone else does, which is usually just to concisely (we all know that’s my strong suit, ha ha) list the same key points, I’ve done the legwork and actually rustled up a few of the papers from which said points were drawn from, and will point you to them so that you can read for yourself the results of some of the various studies that have been conducted over time.

By all means be skeptical, and don’t take our word for it: we’re very few of us scientists in this industry, but there has been real scientific work done which really confirms what we’ve been saying all along: that plants indoors have a direct effect on things like employee productivity, reduction of airborne pollutants, and combating stress and fatigue.

Cleaning the Air

So for starters, do plants actually clean the air? It would be a boring blog post indeed if I said no, and here are a few papers which highlight some of the work that different plants (and their associated colonies of soil-dwelling microorganisms) do to remove harmful chemicals from the interior atmosphere. What I’m not going to do is tote the old NASA study that gets thrown around so often: you can look that up for yourself, but Dr. Wolverton (and others) have continued to do good research into this phenomenon since the first study was published in the 80’s. 

Plants and Soil Microorganisms: Removal of Formaldehyde, Xylene, and Ammonia from the Indoor Environment

This study found that quite a few plant species, notably Boston ferns, chrysanthemums, and dwarf date palms, were able to remove appreciable amounts of these chemicals from the air inside sealed chambers. Based on prior research into indoor air pollutants by the EPA, the authors calculated that an average-sized office constructed of typical building materials would contain 3916 µg (micrograms) of formaldehyde (to use the most sinister example in the paper). A single Boston ferns was shown to remove 1863 µg of this formaldehyde- per hour! The mums and palms were not far behind, and there was a decent list of other plants which were also quite effective at removing formaldehyde from the air.

Figure 1 from the study linked above, showing formaldehyde 
concentrations being removed by a Boston fern.

The other part of the study looked at the microorganisms which colonize the rhizosphere (the area immediately surrounding plants’ roots), and the role they play in the removal of these chemicals. They found that unsterilized soil was able to remove formaldehyde from the air while sterilized soil was not, and that soil containing a plant was more effective still. They found that different types of bacteria had an effect on how much formaldehyde was removed, and the data indicated that different plants harbour different types of soil bacteria. Check out the paper for yourself: I’ve linked to it above.

Purification Ability of Interior Plant for Removing of Indoor-Air Polluting Chemicals Using a Tin Oxide Gas Sensor (sic)

This study performed similar experiments to the one above (you can read it yourself for the full details), with a slightly different method. Their results were similar: plants and their associated bacterial communities removed airborne pollutants quite effectively from the atmosphere. One point of note is that temperature and light had a large effect on the experimental results, suggesting that plants are more effectively cleaning the air when they are actively growing (see the portion in the discussion on uptake of gases through stomata if you like), which really bolsters the case for optimizing plant health in the interior landscaping in order to maximize this beneficial effect.

Improving Employee Productivity

This is a claim that is often used because it seems to infer a real economic benefit to the client. I’m inclined to agree with the science, and I can see that this certainly makes interior landscaping more marketable, but it almost feels like a bribe: surely plants can be desirable of their own merit, and surely the effect they have on people should not be measured in terms of productivity but of general mental and physical health? Do clients actually purchase plants to get more out of their staff? At any rate, the effect has been measured in the following papers (and I’m sure there are more); let’s call it here just an added bonus to the addition of plants to the workplace.

Interior Plants May Improve Worker Productivity and Reduce Stress in a Windowless Environment

This is one of the commonly cited ones, in which the authors noted a 12% increase in productivity (measured as reaction time to a computer task). I’m not sure that this is really a rock-solid study, and I wish I could have found another paper which replicated the experiment, but it’s here, for what it’s worth. One more interesting point in the study is the result on the blood pressure of the participants, which measured significantly lower during and after completing a computer-based productivity task in participants in a room with plants versus that of those in a room without.

Effect of Ornamental Foliage Plants on Visual Fatigue Caused by Visual Display Terminal Operation

I’m hoping that someone’s Japanese is better than mine and they might comment on this paper, but based on the English abstract and the figures in the results, these researchers found that viewing plants while performing tasks on a visual display terminal (presumably a computer screen of some sort) resulted in reduced visual fatigue when measured as critical flicker fusion frequency (a somewhat complicated phenomenon that you can look up on your own). I can’t comment much on this one, as I can’t even read it, but the numbers are there.

Plants Enhance Productivity in Case of Creative Work

This is more of a press release than an actual paper, I think, but it highlights the results of an experiment carried out by researchers in The Netherlands, which found that, while no improvements to productivity tasks were noted, there was a marked improvement in performance of creative tasks. These improvements were even more dramatic with test subjects with self-reported stress or exhaustion (the study used students as their guinea pigs).

Figure 2 from the productivity paper above, showing the number of correct associations by students who reported a high level of physical exhaustion.

General Health and Wellbeing

This is probably the most important one for me, because it has much to do with the concept of biophilia, which I will be addressing soon (likely at great length), and which is tied very closely to In Situ’s raison d'être. We believe that humans have an innate subconscious need for proximity to natural elements, and keeping plants indoors proves to be a noteworthy way of satisfying this in our modern urban settings.

General mental health seems a difficult thing to quantify, but the works below are able to convey a few measured benefits to having plants around us while spending, as we typically do, the majority of our time indoors.

Stress Recovery during Exposure to Natural and Urban Environments

This almost creepy lab study measured several parameters (heart rate, muscle tension, etc.) during and after showing the poor participants videos of people getting into violent industrial accidents, followed by a video of either a fast-moving stream, a wooded area, or varying degrees of busy vehicle or foot traffic. The results clearly showed that the wooded scene was very effective in recovery from the stress indicated in the physical tests.

The self-report from the participants also indicates that the nature scene was the most positively affective by far, and best able to reduce anger, aggression and sadness.

Figure 2 from the study above, showing changes in pulse transit time while watching first a gory video and then one of several other types of scene. 

Greening the Great Indoors for Human Health and Wellbeing

This extensive study looked at various aspects of how keeping plants indoors relates to human well-being, from mental and physical standpoints. In section 5, the authors had their subjects complete Profile of Mood States questionnaires (apparently a widely accepted method for measuring different psychological states) before and after the placement of varying numbers of plants in their workspaces for a period of three months. The questionnaires covered such feelings as tension/anxiety, fatigue, and confusion.

The data shows that plants did in fact affect these parameters, and that the control group with no plants scored even worse on the questionnaire than it initially had done, while the subjects with plants saw their scores improve markedly.

The Role of Nature in the Context of the Workplace

This is also mostly a literature review, and includes quite a few statistics from other authors’ papers (which is why I’ve included it here), but the author points to two of her own studies, and I’d like to summarize here the gist of the second one: in a survey rating employee satisfaction, the availability of a view out of doors was considered far more valuable and restorative if it contained natural elements, and became even more so the more natural elements could be seen. Further to this, respondents with clear outside views to natural elements reported feeling more positive about their work in general. From the above:

“These results point to the range of impacts that a view of nature can affect. Those with a view of nature felt less frustrated and more patient, found their job more challenging, expressed greater enthusiasm for it, and reported higher life satisfaction as well as overall health.”

Pretty interesting stuff, I think. It will be interesting to stay on top of the science and see what further studies come from this quarter. If anyone has any further information on this they want to share (for or against, of course, though I bet you’d be hard pressed to find a study against plants in buildings), be sure to include it in the comments.