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Spending time in green spaces may reduce workplace stress

  • Taking regular walks in the woods or in city parks may enhance workers’ ability to cope with stress.
  • The relationship was significant even after controlling for a range of factors.
  • The study involved more than 6,000 Japanese workers.

Work-related stress affects employees all over the globe. In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) added burnout — defined as a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress — to its official compendium of diseases as an occupational phenomenon.

Workers in Japan, where workplace culture frequently dictates that employees work brutally long hours, are certainly not immune to occupational stress.

In 2018, workers in Japan took only 52.4% of the paid leave they were due, according to government figures that the BBC reported. The Japanese even have a word — “karoshi” — to describe death by overwork.

In the new study, which appears in Public Health in Practice, scientists from the University of Tsukuba in Japan examined survey data from 6,466 Japanese workers who were between the ages of 20 and 59 years in November, 2017.

As part of the original survey, each of the workers received a sense-of-coherence (SOC) score.

In 1979, sociologist Aaron Antonovsky first introduced SOC as a concept. It refers to an individual’s ability to look at the world and see themselves able to make their life meaningful, manageable, and comprehensible.

He went on to develop a questionnaire that analyzes how respondents understand the things that happen to them, as well as their ability both to manage the situation and to take meaning from it.

A previous study found that individuals with a strong SOC score showed more resilience during stressful life events. This finding supported earlier research suggesting that in the workplace, a strong SOC score could indicate that a worker possesses a solid ability to cope with stress.

“SOC indicates mental capacities for realizing and dealing with stress,” explains Prof. Shinichiro Sasahara of the University of Tsukuba, one of the study authors.

The study authors note that researchers have previously demonstrated that individuals who are married or have attended college or graduate school are more likely to have a strong SOC score.

They also write that nonsmokers are more likely to have a strong SOC than smokers and that people who exercise frequently tend to have a stronger SOC score than those who do not.

For this study, the researchers divided the survey respondents into groups based on how often they reported walking in forests or green spaces. They then looked for correlations between the time spent walking in nature and a range of factors, including SOC score, sex, age, marital status, educational background, household income, smoking habits, and physical exercise.

Of the respondents, 55.9% and 75.9% reported walking in forests or green spaces, respectively, at least once a year.

The researchers found that respondents who walked in forests or green spaces at least once a week showed “a significantly positive association” with a strong or middle SOC score, even after adjusting for demographic factors.

This study’s results line up with numerous previous studies that have touted the benefits of walking in forests and green spaces. One, in particular, concluded that strolling in the woods may decrease the risk of psychosocial stress-related diseases.

Forests occupy about two-thirds of Japanese land. Even in the country’s bustling cities, the study’s authors note, people can easily access parks and gardens.

The authors of the recent study wanted to understand how walking in nature affects work stress management.

“Forest/green space walking is a simple activity that needs no special equipment or training,” says Prof. Sasahara. “It could be a very good habit for improving mental health and managing stress.”

The study’s authors note that many of the respondents were researchers who had attended graduate school and had a mean annual household income higher than that of most Japanese workers. Therefore, any generalization of the study’s results requires caution.

In addition, the team took the data for this study from a mental health-related research project. The authors point out the possibility of sampling bias, as people interested in mental health are potentially more likely to have responded to the survey.

The researchers also noted that the respondents self-reported their walking habits, so these may not be fully accurate.

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