Organizations are desperately trying to identify ways to encourage improved employee health and well-being, and nature offers an underutilized and often overlooked opportunity for this. Some of the obstacles that have prevented nature from being embraced include many people not understanding the health benefits associated with nature contact, how these benefits impact work effectiveness, and methods that can be used to encourage employees to spend time in nature. Connecting to nature has been made more difficult than it needs to be.
A model for how to encourage people to develop a connection with nature is the 30×30 Nature Challenge developed by the David Suzuki Foundation (DSF) in Canada. The 30×30 Nature Challenge is an annual program aimed at increasing Canadians’ contact with the natural environment.To be involved in the challenge, participants voluntarily signed up on the DSF website before May 1st and pledged to spend a minimum of 30 minutes outdoors, in contact with nature, for 30 days during the month of May. A number of workplaces publicized the challenge and the DSF provided toolkits, designed specifically for employers, containing tips that encouraged employees to spend time outdoors and in nature. Individual participants received email updates and were able to visit the DSF 30×30 challenge website throughout the month of May for further suggestions on how to incorporate more nature contact into their daily life.
In 2013 participants were involved in a research study conducted by the DSF and Dr. Elizabeth (Lisa) Nisbet, Assistant Professor in the Psychology Department at Trent University in Ontario.
Over 10,000 people participated in the research study, with 2,285 submitting information that could be utilized for analysis.The results revealed that overall, the 30×30 challenge was successful in encouraging participants to increase their nature contact. Participants also reported increased nature relatedness and well-being at the end of the challenge. “The 30×30 nature challenge was a voluntary commitment and the respondents were self-selected, but the results suggested that increased nature contact had benefits for increasing happiness,” said Nisbet. Participants almost doubled their weekly nature contact participating in the challenge, and also had better moods and less stress at the end of the challenge.
Effects of the 30×30 Nature Challenge on Work Functioning
A number of workplaces across Canada publicized the challenge to their employees. At the beginning of the survey, respondents were asked if they had learned about the 30×30 challenge at work. Participants who indicated ‘yes’ were directed to three additional questions about job functioning. Participants were asked how satisfied they were with their job in the previous month, how well they were getting along with colleagues, and how productive they felt they were in their work role. Participants reported no changes in either job satisfaction or interactions with co-workers. However, people did feel they were being slightly more productive in their work roles at the end of the challenge.
I recently had the opportunity to talk with Dr. Elizabeth (Lisa) Nisbet about the 30×30 challenge and how organizations and communities can utilize the results of this study. Dr. Nisbet’s research has focused on individual differences in subjective connectedness with nature (nature relatedness or NR) and the links with health, well-being (happiness), and environmentally sustainable behaviour.
Hiking Research: What is the most important thing to take away from the results of the Nature Challenge?
Dr. Elizabeth Nisbet: The key finding (and maybe most exciting result) from the 30×30 nature challenge is it’s possible to change how we spend our time and, as a result, improve our well-being. There is room in our busy lives for a few hours of nature contact each week. The nature challenge participants were able to double their weekly nature time during the month of May, and this increased nature contact was associated with significant increases in happiness. The way we spend our leisure time influences how we feel – physically and mentally – and this is within our control, to some extent. In other words, if we know about nature’s effects on our well-being, we can make informed decisions about where to spend our time and choose environments that enhance rather than detract from our health. By getting outdoors, for a walk, hike, or other activity in nature, we’re improving our psychological health but also strengthening our bond with the natural world. This is good for us, and good for our environment.
Hiking Research: How can communities and organizations adapt the concept of the 30x 30 Nature Challenge for their own initiatives?
Dr. Elizabeth Nisbet: Because our modern lifestyles often separate us (physically and psychologically) from nature, many people may not get regular doses of nature contact. By setting goals to spend time in nature we can ensure we don’t neglect this important connection. The health benefits of nature contact are relevant for both individuals and organizations. We benefit, in terms of our personal happiness, from time in nature, but there are also spillover effects. The nature contact we have in our leisure time appears to carry over into other life domains. In other words, connecting with nature contributes to our well-being even after we leave the natural environment and go back to our homes and workplaces. People who have a strong sense of connection with the natural world are generally happier, and this has benefits for health and productivity. The research on nature and greenspace shows that even having a view of nature from a window reduces our frustration and improves our well-being. Another benefit of connecting with nature is that it fosters greater concern for the natural environment. People are more motivated to care for something if they feel connected to it. This connection with nature can foster social cohesion and thus strengthen communities as they work together.
Hiking Research: What are your suggestions for helping people disconnect from technology and to connect to nature?
Dr. Elizabeth Nisbet: It can be a challenge to unplug. Finding ways to incorporate nature contact into our routine is one way to ensure we get enough outdoor time. Making regular time for nature, just like other health habits, even in small doses, is helpful for improving our well-being. Active commuting (biking, walking, etc.) to work or school is another way to connect with nearby urban nature. If distances make this impossible, then taking a walk during work breaks can restore our focus and boost our mood. In order to disconnect from technology and reconnect with our environment we may need to think about nature differently – not just as leisure, but as an essential part of our day and an important health practice.
Hiking Research: Describe the research projects you are currently involved with.
Dr. Elizabeth Nisbet: We have a number of nature contact studies going on in my lab. We are studying the effects of experiential environmental education on nature connectedness and environmental concern. We are also using a nature contact intervention (similar to the 30×30 challenge) to investigate how spending time in nature may affect students’ stress levels and psychological health. Another research project underway is testing how citizen science experiences influence well-being and environmental concern. Participants in our Wildlife CSI (Compost Scene Identification) study are contributing to actual research looking at how composting influences scavenger behaviour. I am interested in how this, and other, citizen science ventures affect connectedness with nature as well as happiness. Learning about the plants and animals in our ecosystems may enhance our sense of connection with nature, our happiness, and motivate more environmentally sustainable behaviour.
Final Thoughts: The 30X30 Nature Challenge offers an excellent example of an initiative communities and organizations can utilize to encourage spending time in nature. Organizations can provide incentives for participation such as “wellness credits” that can be applied towards insurance premiums, or offering time “on the clock” for employees to spend time in nature as a group. Communities can use this type of initiative to encourage all residents to get outside, while targeting communities that are distressed and more likely to not have access to green space with special programs.