In 2021, Laurea conducted research on the positive effects of nature for everyday work wellbeing. In the eLuontoluotsi project, partially funded by the Finnish Work Environment Fund, Laurea Master students organised nature-based pilots in different organisations to find out how one could create such a service model that could easily promote daily work wellbeing by providing different ideas, tips and exercises using nature as onsite and online inspiration. As part of Laurea’s Wellness at Work course by Senior Lecturer and eLuontoluotsi researcher Tiina Wikström, also Bachelor students could participate in testing different nature-based methods at their workplaces. One of such students was Sanna Rosti who is studying business administration at Haaga-Helia campus in Porvoo.
eLuontoluotsi pilots: learning a new break routine
During the eLuontoluotsi project, companies and organisations participating in the project had a possibility to try out different nature-themed online and onsite breaks during workdays. The idea was to learn more about the benefits of nature on work wellbeing. All the piloting groups were offered pre-selected online and onsite nature-themed breaks, and the participants could choose the ones that best suited their own preferences and schedules.
In the pilots conducted by Rosti and other project participants, some test persons chose to watch nature pictures while others were more comfortable listening to nature sounds, like rain. Some preferred action to calmness during their breaks, and some chose to watch for example a short video of puppies playing for relaxation. Those who had a chance and so wanted could go outside for a short walk during their workday. Many felt refreshed even after a few deep breaths outside in fresh air. How did the pilot participants then comment on the benefits of nature-based breaks and what were the key conclusions?
As employees often have very tight work schedules, many eLuontoluotsi participants found it challenging to fit a nature-themed break into their hectic workday. Also, in Rosti’s pilot the participants noticed that even to remember to take a break was sometimes difficult, and some participants thought they had too much work to do to be able to take a such break. It was easier to remember the breaks by simply adding a reminder to one’s calendar, although some felt this too increased the stress, especially if the calendar was already too full and the break was then just another obligation. On the other hand, some felt that when you have a set time in your daily schedule, having breaks becomes more of a daily routine.
Nature breaks and self-compassion supporting work wellbeing
For work wellbeing, it is important to remember that an efficient workday includes breaks during the day. Work communities have a crucial impact on the culture of breaks, and mutual discussions about having breaks makes them more acceptable and common. (Tierna 2019.) In some of the piloting organisations, a few employees felt they were not allowed to have such breaks. Even if there are very clear regulations on minimum daily breaks in the Finnish Working Time Act, covering all the employees working in Finland (Finlex), all organisations might not clearly prioritise on building a healthy workday culture, with empowering breaks and moments of rest. Employee breaks have also a social dimension. Spending breaks together with the teammates creates bond between the team members. Regular breaks during working hours spike the employees’ creativity, improve their mental health, and increase productivity. (Kohll 2018.)
Rosti found out in her research how healthy selfishness was needed when creating space for breaks during workday. There will probably always be a lot of work waiting for you, but who is going to do that in the future if you don’t take good care of yourself and become exhausted? In the worst-case scenario, you might end up experiencing burnout. Self-compassion might be the answer. As explained by L. Firestone in Psychology Today (2016), when we face self-judgement and self-criticism, we need to stop our thoughts for a moment and focus on self-compassion instead. It is scientifically proven that self-compassion is highly beneficial to our overall well-being and mental health. It helps us in creating a consistent mindset of acceptance and kindness towards ourselves. With the attitude of self-compassion, it is possible to make a daily routine of breaks. Then you can consciously accept the idea that it is for your own good to have a break during your workday, preferably in nature.
Promoting our break management skills
As Rosti saw in her pilot feedback interviews, it might well be that you need to first force yourself to have breaks during workdays, especially if you are not used to having them. If you do not have the habit of having breaks, you might find it hard to take the time needed and focus on having a proper break. Those pilot participants who took breaks 8 to 10 times during the piloting period said they needed the push towards a new culture of actually taking the necessary time for breaks. Most people found such breaks very refreshing and planned on continuing with the good habit of regular breaks – positive experiences fed the continuity.
Some thought their own mindset was their worst enemy when planning for breaks. If one thinks that “I must be available at all times,” it of course makes having breaks difficult. A team leader or a superior could give a good example of taking breaks and in this way support the routine. And yet, to create a break-supporting routine also requires that the employees themselves are determined to commit to new, healthy habits.
Break-taking is also interlinked with self-management skills. Some individuals from the test groups recognized that not having a break during the workday could be due to their self-management skills or lack of them. Self-management means our ability to manage our thoughts, emotions, and our own behaviour in a conscious way. By learning better self-management, you can maintain focus on your tasks, and take responsibility for your actions. As we become more conscious of our needs and goals, we can better react to them. (Munro 2021.) A simple daily reminder can support our break management as well.
Nature breaks relieving stress and calming our mind
In the eLuontoluotsi project, the work wellbeing was studied especially from the viewpoint of nature empowerment. According to many studies, nature has a stress relieving effect on our mind, and especially nature breaks and visits to forest are very beneficial. The positive effects of forest are easily obtained. Already a five-minute break in a forest is enough to elevate your mood, and after a 20-minute walk, your blood pressure drops. Forest walks improve your physical and mental health, your pulse slows down, and your stress hormone levels decrease. Afterwards, you can also concentrate better on your tasks. (Aivoliitto 2018.)
Within the piloting groups of the eLuontoluotsi project, the employees were given a pre-made selection of nature-themed breaks to choose from. There was an option to go for a walk or spend 5–10 minutes on the balcony outside. Going outside was considered the best possible break during a workday. Those who stayed inside chose nature themes from various nature-themed pictures, sounds, or animal videos. Most people were looking for calming effects from their nature breaks. They wanted to have a mindful moment with soft and calm sounds. Some enjoyed nature pictures and videos but felt that watching them on the screen was not enough; they preferred to have a short exercise break while watching the videos. Even a few minutes break (<5 min) was found beneficial for the employees’ well-being. Many felt calmer and they forgot work stress for a short moment while concentrating on nature. For some, the knowledge of the benefits of having a break was already an adequate push towards the routine of daily breaks at work. Based on the research by T. Pasanen, it is less relevant what you think or do while walking in nature, or what kinds of things you concentrate on, the benefits are still the same. Whether you walk in a forest or in a city park, you most likely experience your mind calming down, the clearing of thoughts, better focus, and a more positive mood. (Macgilleon 2020.)
Towards a new nature break culture at work
To conclude, the results from the eLuontoluotsi project show that many participants became more conscious of the empowering effects of nature and taking breaks. They gained better understanding of where and when recovery takes place and the importance of breaks for their own well-being. There was also an increased awareness of the restorative effects of nature outside of work. You do not always need to have a long break to benefit from it but rather it is important to find a suitable way to make it into a routine. Short breaks might easier fit into our hectic schedules. To facilitate this, we need to create a work community that accepts and supports breaks, and it is useful to find a natural way of taking such breaks during the workday. Sometimes setting a time with the whole team to have a break together works, too. We can give a good example to our colleagues by following such break routine.
It is also beneficial to keep in mind the importance of self-compassion and the teachings of self-management to proceed with determination towards the goal of daily routine of breaks. As nature is very empowering, it is useful to include nature in our breaks whenever we can. Even a five-minute nature break, a short walk in the forest or some deep breaths outside are useful for our work wellbeing, creativity promotion and productivity at work.