Updated: Feb 4
During the summer and autumn of 2019, we carried out a series of tests to investigate the impact of spending time looking into an aquarium would have on the stress and anxiety levels of individuals working in a web development agency in Birmingham. The digital marketing agency industry is characteristically a high-pressure environment with tight budgets and even tighter deadlines. Individuals working in this sector often experience prolonged periods of workplace anxiety and stress partly due to heavy workloads and extended time periods in front of a screen.
Lightbox Digital, whose employees were the subjects of our study, are a small SME who focus on web design and digital marketing. At the time of the study, they had recently relocated to a spacious new office in the heart of the creative design district in Birmingham, known as the Jewellery Quarter. The aim behind this relocation was to improve the client experience and brand identity, by creating a physical environment that not only reflected a level of aspiration to new and existing clients, but also inspired and motivated employees to create exceptional value. The directors at Lightbox Digital took the approach that this space was to be the catalyst for accelerated business growth and development. In vein with this approach, they agreed to trial a ViDERE aquarium as a component of the business interior with the view of creating an additional point of interest an enrichment for both clients and staff.
On average, we spend around 60% of our waking hours at a place of work; people working in creative industries such as marketing, digital design, and architecture often working longer hours and subsequently spend more time in their respective workplaces. In light of this, the environments of the company’s where people work can have a massive effect on how they feel and function as individuals and communities in society. It is well documented in both the fields of medicine and occupational psychology, that exposure to prolonged periods of anxiety and stress can lead to;
• Poor mental health in the form of depression
• Poor physical health in the form of high blood pressure and a compromised immune system.
Poor mental and physical health not only diminishes a person’s ability to function and perform well at work but also has a social impact on the family at home and the wider social community.
It is also common knowledge, through both research and anecdotal evidence that humans experience physiological, emotional and cognitive benefits from interacting with nature (Ulrich, 1984; van den Berg et al, 2003). The correlation between contact with nature and improved wellbeing has led to a culture shift in the way we design buildings and public spaces. This cultural shift has been a driving force behind occupational psychologists and designers taking a holistic approach to incorporate different elements of nature into the structure, furnishings and operational activities of businesses and corporations.
The approach of ‘Human Centred Design’ incorporates a multitude of disciplines and expertise to enable companies to positively shape the environment of their employees both physically and culturally. One important component of this approach is the introduction of nature as a key design element to create greater appeal and improve wellbeing. Research has shown that on average humans instinctively prefer to be surrounded by elements of nature (Ulrich, R. S., 1981). Our perception of what is beautiful is greatly skewed towards landscapes, and areas that are rich in biodiversity (Dennis Dutton 2009). The extensive body of research in this subject area has made the integration of nature as a cornerstone in the approach of design that improves the human experience.
3 Theories of Life
There are three significant theories that explain the impact of nature on human psychology and physiology. These theories also give a detailed insight into why using elements of nature is such an effective way of designing a space.
Biophilia - Biophilia translated in Latin means “to love life”. This theory was first introduced by Eric Fromm in 1973 and expanded into its current form by Edward Wilson in 1984 who published his book Biophilia in 1993. It introduces the idea that the human brain has evolved to shape our behaviour in such a way that we instinctively seek out and recognise features of natural beauty. Our brains associate such features with potential resources which aid with survival reproduction, and quality of life. This is a genetic predisposition that has programmed us to recognise biodiversity as an indicator of a potential food source and certain landscape features as an indicator for shelter.
Psychophysiological Stress Recovery Theory (PSRT) – This shares a similar base premise with Biophilia but goes on to describe how the presence of nature triggers reward responses in the brain, e.g. the release of dopamine. The potency of this response is amplified when following periods of high anxiety and stress (Ulrich et al, 1991). These experiences with nature can act as a relief mechanism for stress by reducing physical arousal and improving emotional state. Frequently accessing nature is a good long-term strategy for recharging energy expended used to cope with the stress (Ulrich 1993).
Attention Restoration Theory (ART) - This theory suggests that prolonged periods of concentration and focus will lead to elevated levels of stress, anxiety and mental fatigue (Herzog et al, 2003). The intensity of experienced anxiety is compounded by multitasking several tasks at the same time. This can be alleviated by restorative settings and experiences that remove an individual from the physical or social source of anxiety/mental fatigue (Kaplan et al, 1995). Kaplan proposed that natural settings had the most impactful restorative effect as they would;
• FASCINATE – An environment’s ability to effortlessly hold someone’s attention without them having to use energy to direct their focus or attention.
• BEING AWAY – A sense of being away or separate from the environmental and social source of stress. This sense of separation enables someone to temporarily let go from the usual day to day thoughts and concerns. This separation can be physical and psychological.
• EXTENT – Rich environment with multiple levels of interest and enrichment. Experiences in these environments have a sense of familiarity allowing some to totally immerse and engage with the space whilst feeling safe.
• COMPATIBILITY - A sense of enjoyment and visceral appeal. The environment is only restorative if a person enjoys being there and likes the look of what they see, hear, and smell. Motivation to stay immersed in that space is intrinsic and not driven by external factors.
The purpose of this pilot study was to investigate the potential impact of looking into an aquarium for 10 minutes during the typical working day of junior and senior employees working in a high-pressure business environment. We documented any changes in the emotional, physical and cognitive state of participants by measuring pulse rate and blood pressure before and after the session. We also carried out informal debrief conversations with each participant post-session. An analysis of the findings was carried to see how this type of interior feature (an aquarium) benefited people working in high-pressure business environments.
The methodology and procedure was heavily modelled from the work of, Debborah Cracknell, Mathew. P. White and et al who published a study in 2015 (Marine Biota and Psychological Well-Being: A Preliminary Examination of Dose–Response Effects in an Aquarium Setting) that investigated the physiological and psychological response of participants and members of the public looking at an aquarium display in Sea Life Centre: London Aquarium (the abstract from which is below).
“Exposure to natural environments can have calming and stress-reducing effects on humans. Moreover, previous studies suggest that these benefits may be greater in areas with higher species richness. Our study took advantage of a “natural experiment” to examine people’s behavioral, physiological, and psychological reactions to increases in levels of marine biota in a large aquarium exhibit during three stages of restocking: Unstocked, Partially stocked, and Fully stocked. We found that increased biota levels were associated with longer spontaneous viewing of the exhibit, greater reductions in heart rate, greater increases in self-reported mood, and higher interest. We suggest that higher biota levels, even in managed settings, may be associated with important well-being and health benefits, particularly for individuals not able to access the natural analogues of managed environments.”
Part of Cracknell and White’s study involved students sitting down in front of the aquarium for 10 minutes, whilst their blood pressure and heart rate were recorded before and after the experimental period. Participants were also given a standardised questionnaire to score their mood/psychological state. What was most interesting about their study was the data they got from participants interacting with the same aquarium at different stages of stocking **industry term**. The findings from this study support the theory that levels of biodiversity are an important component of biophilia and the impact it can have.
Blood pressure and heart rate are a metric used by medical and psychology practitioners as an indicator of anxiety, stress, and an indicator for poor health. The bodies response to external stress involves elevated levels of cortisol and adrenaline in the blood stream increase. Elevated levels of these hormones put the body in a fight or flight state resulting in higher blood pressure and increased heart rate. Prolonged exposure to these hormones can lead to health complications from the body shutting down functions and processes that are not essential for fight or flight.
This pilot study replicated elements of White and Cracknell’s experimental method, with the view to look at how this type of interaction would affect people working in a commercial business setting and how effective it could be as a potential therapy for stress recovery.
The other key aim of this investigation was to test the principles of biophilia in the working environment, using a method that focused on the models of PSRT and ART. The results and findings of this study would hopefully give an insight into how this form of cognitive restoration therapy (looking into an aquarium) could improve productivity, team cohesion, and individual mental health.
The study was carried out in the office of Lightbox Digital during their normal working day between the hours of 10am and 2pm.
Participant group was made up of 13 individuals:
• 7 male & 6 female subjects
• Aged between 21 and 40
• Ethnicity: White European
• 1 x Director
• 3 x Management / Leadership
• 6 x Executive Professional
• 3 x Junior/ Trainees
ViDERE 60 Aquarium:
• Freshwater ecosystem
• Live planted aquascape
• 5 x species of small freshwater fish (42 individuals)
• Digital stopwatch
• Omron M3 Comfort Upper Arm Blood Pressure Monitor
1. Participants were briefed on the procedure and signed a consent form.
2. Participants were asked to remove any jumpers, jackets or thick layer of clothing that covered their left arm.
3. Participants were seated on the chair in front of the aquarium.
4. The arm harness of the blood pressure machine was wrapped around participants left bicep.
5. Experimenter held participants forearm at a 90degree angle to their torso and engaged the blood pressure machine.
6. Heart rate and blood pressure was recorded in beats per minute (BPM) and systole and diastole (SYS mmHG / DIA mmHG) respectively.
7. Participants were then instructed to look into the aquarium for the duration of the experimental time.
8. After 10 minutes blood pressure and heart rate were recorded as per the procedure in (3. and 4.)
9. At the end of the session, participants were then asked how they felt during and after the session.
10. The experimenter made notes about the subsequent comments and debrief discussion.
TABLE SHOWING CHANGE IN BLOOD PRESSURE AND HEART RATE AFTER LOOKING INTO A PLANTED AQUARIUM FOR 10 MINUTES
TABLE SHOWING AVERAGE (MEAN) BLOOD PRESSURE AND HEART RATE BEFORE AND AFTER LOOKING INTO AN AQUARIUM FOR 10 MINUTES
The results from the study show that looking into a planted aquarium for 10 minutes leads to an average drop in blood pressure by 15.6 % and an average drop in heart rate by 3%.
According to the NHS, a healthy adult’s blood pressure should range between 90/60mmHg and 120/80mmHg. All but two participants blood pressure fell into this recommended range after the 10-minute therapy.
The participants with the highest blood pressure before the therapy were at senior management and director level, reflecting the pressures of responsibility involved with project and personnel management. They experienced the greatest physiological recovery from the therapy. Conversely, the more junior members of the team came into the experiment with the lowest blood pressure out of all the participants and were not as physiologically responsive to the therapy.
NB: Participant 3 has been highlighted on the results table in red as a possible anomaly. Their high blood pressure was due to a chronic medical condition and so it is difficult to draw objective conclusions from their data.
NHS guidelines state that an ideal resting heart rate should be between 60 bpm and 100bpm. This varies somewhat for amateur and professional athletes who have stronger cardiac muscles and may have a resting heart rate of 40bpm to 90bpm. The 3% average drop in heart indicates a nominal impact on heart rate from this type of therapy. All participants started and ended the therapy with a (guideline) normal resting heart rate.
Notes from the participants debriefs gave an interesting insight the psychological impact and benefits that this type of therapy can have.
• All 13 disclosed a feeling of calm and reduced anxiety after the therapy.
• 5 participants said they felt sleepy during the session.
• 8 participants said they felt more awake after their session.
• 4 participants reported an improvement in concentration and creativity when they went back to their work after the therapy.
This study was not carried out in an experimentally controlled environment, we used a small sample of participants from one ethnic group working in one industry sector. The data from this study cannot be extrapolated to statistically represent the wider population within the UK and Europe.
These findings do however give us some insights into the role that biophilia can have in shaping our environments and how this can affect our psychological and physiological state. From this pilot study we can draw some preliminary conclusions and inferences about the potential benefits associated with having an aquarium in a business interior for the staff and management teams that work there. The findings from this study also suggest that an aquarium not only has a positive impact on the appeal of a space with its high biophilic value but can be used as a therapy for stress recovery.
As this was a pilot study to preliminarily explore the effects of this type of feature within a business environment, there is considerable scope to refine the methodology and look at other variables and measurable impacts. These include:
• Conducting a longitudinal study with repeated and consistent therapy sessions to investigate any long-term benefits of multiple therapy sessions. This approach would look at the principle of mental health being analogous to physical fitness, in the sense that significant health benefits would be more noticeable from regular and consistent exercise after a 6-week period.
• Evaluating how the time of day could impact the effectiveness of therapy.
• Working with a larger participant pool from a range of ethnic backgrounds working in different industry sectors.
• Standardising the debrief to a more experimentally measurable questionnaire, to get more accurate data on the impact on psychological and emotional state before and after therapy.
• Compare the therapeutic impact of different types of aquarium ecosystems i.e. freshwater, planted, marine, reef, to further investigate Cracknell and Whites findings on biodiversity.
“What do these findings mean?”
The continued acceleration of technological development across all industries has enabled companies to produce more products and better services, faster, and cheaper. Modern consumer behaviour has driven companies to invest in artificial intelligence as a way to maximise efficiency and stay competitive. The impact of this cultural shift is most felt by the working people that make up the labour force in three ways;
• Unemployment through redundancies and drops in recruitment rates
• Poor wage growth vs inflation
• Changes in job roles that require people to be more productive with less time and resources.
Put this within the context of modern-day life, in a country like the UK, that does not carry the threat of attack from wild animals, invading tribes and incurable epidemics. The biggest perceived threat to our existence as individuals and families, is job security. Having the ability to progress academically through education, then onto a profession is a social driver that shapes legislation and cultural norms. The vast majority of us will base our whole identity around the work we do. When the social interactions and physical environment become a limiting factor for productivity and progression, employees are more likely to suffer from poor mental health in the form of anxiety, stress and depression.
The Significance of Culture
CEO’s and owners are now recognising how important it is to minimise and address the triggers of excessive anxiety and stress that employees experience in their roles and working environment. They know that workplace stress reduces productivity and has a negative effect on a company’s culture.
Culture is not just a one-way set of values that a company embeds within its team of staff. Culture is a reflection of the shared experiences of a group of people. It affects how team members interact with each other and others outside the group i.e. suppliers and clients. This collective consciousness is the social environment. It characterises the attitudes and behaviours of a group or organisation and is evident in “how things are done” differently between organisations and social groups. If a company wishes to establish or change the culture within their organisation, they must look beyond the social interactions that take place in and around their team and focus first on the place where they work, the physical environment.
The physical environment sets the context within which a social environment can develop. We see this play out in society as crime rates in socially deprived areas are typically higher than in more affluent areas. This is partly due to poor infrastructural and commercial investment from government and industry, but also partly due to the architecture and design of the physical spaces in which people live. Higher population density, poor management of building regulations, underfunded civil services, and reduced levels of biophilia often lead to people taking less pride and care in the area that they live in. This lack of environmental pride and care manifests itself into the anti-social behaviours often witnessed in these areas. For a company to grow quickly and benefit from a positive culture it must understand and embrace the principle of environments dictating performance (Daniel Priestley, 2017).
A New Approach to Culture
Traditionally companies defined their culture by focusing heavily on the social environment through HR management and team building. Building the social environment in this way defined how groups of people were organised and interacted with each other, but did not really address the importance of the physical environment in which these groups had to work in. Almost all occupational psychologists and sociologists agree that the physical environment we work and live in has a major impact on a person’s physiological state which in turn determines how they socially interact with others around them. The wealth of research into this topic and subject area has proven that people benefit physiologically, emotionally and cognitively from well-designed spaces that place the wellbeing of humans at the centre of its design aims. This benefit is even further amplified when interactions with nature are woven into the fabric of a building’s architecture and interior (Ulrich, 1991). The correlation between contact with nature and improved wellbeing has led to a culture shift in the way we design buildings and public spaces.
A Business Case
The conversation around improved employee wellbeing has evolved from just a discussion about humanitarian morality. Companies are now aware there is a case to be made for business growth. A large-scale analysis of the World’s Top 100 companies was carried out by global analytics firm ‘Great Place to Work’. They found that companies which rated highly with employee happiness and wellbeing are likely to benefit from 3 x higher revenues and half the staff turnover compared to their less empathetic competitors (Michael C. Bush 2018). The competitive advantage from happier and healthier teams of people can be explained in a number of ways;
• The Triple Bottom Line
Happy and healthy employees are motivated and focused on creating value for your clients. Happy clients are more likely to spend more money with you through repeat business and upgrades on products and services. Future clients are easier and cheaper to acquire through recommendation and good reputation.
• Faster Performance
Low staff turnover means less time, money, and energy spent on recruitment and training. Resources are channelled into enabling teams to focus on growth and expansion opportunities as well as nurturing relationships with clients and suppliers.
• Higher Profitability.
Companies with a positive culture are more efficient at making money and building a strong brand. Brand value is created through employee team cohesion, client loyalty, and market communities. Companies that have a strong brand find it easier to attract and retain talent as well as sell products and services to their marketplace (Gary Vaynerchuck, 2018).
Basing decisions about design and business operations around the needs and wellbeing of the people involved within the business has strong analogies with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Maslow’s model describes that a well-motivated, fully functional person needs to meet their basic needs and feel safe before being able to operate at higher levels of social complexity. The more proficient a person is at meeting those basic needs, the more proficient they become at forming relationships, maintaining relationships, establishing hierarchy, and learning new skills.
This mirrors the human-centred design model of a company’s culture as the social environment can only grow and develop into its full potential if the physical environment facilitates it. This recent cultural shift of prioritising employee wellbeing has been the driving force behind human-centred design and the recent explosion of biophilia.
The Impact of Biophilia on Human Behaviour
As aforementioned, the human brain is wired to seek out and recognise the features of natural beauty. Our brain associates natural features as a potential source for vital resources life like food, water and shelter. This instinctive behaviour has evolved over millions of years as an adaptive mechanism to maximise chances of survival and reproduction. Stress and anxiety for our ancestors was mostly a result of resource scarcity. In these scenarios, the brain puts the body in a fight or flight state to address the immediate needs of the individual and their family. Imagine living on grassland in the middle of the dry season or drought when biodiversity would be at its lowest; water is scarce, vegetation is sparse, and there are very few if any animals to hunt. Anxiety and stress levels would elevate, as meeting basic needs becomes more difficult, which would be compounded by competition with others for the limited resources. There are three possible outcomes;
• Fight for resources to ensure survival
• Flight towards other areas that have enough resources for survival
Our bodies stress response to low biodiversity is the basis of biophilia. The design of modern architecture and urban environments along with a growing dependence on technology has led to individuals in modern society becoming disconnected from nature (E. Wilson, 1993). This disconnect from nature diminishes an individual’s resilience to (cope and recover) from stressful social conditions (Ulrich, 1991).
Biophilic design is more than an intuitive way of arranging a space or creating a product. It seeks to address this issue of disconnection through a range of design techniques that incorporate nature into the architecture and interior of a building. This is a research-based multi-layered approach that improves the way people experience an environment by directly stimulating the senses of sight, sound, smell, and touch. These design techniques can be categorised into three groups.
3 Principles of Biophilic Design
NATURE IN THE SPACE – This is a direct and physical presence of nature, and natural processes in the space. This involves the use of natural objects and materials that stimulate the senses of sight, sound smell and touch to create a visceral connection with nature.
• Visual connections with nature are the most commonly used elements in biophilic design as they create the most impactful experience. We have evolved to rely heavily on what we see to make sense of our surroundings, in order to identify opportunities and spot danger. Interior design and architecture are visually lead disciplines with success heavily weighted on a project’s appearance. Visual biophilic experiences are created through being able to see natural; objects, features, surfaces and light within the space.
Examples of this include live plants, flowers, wood, stone, sunlight, and water. Strong visual connections with nature are also established when in the presence of natural processes and living systems. This would include water movement, daily/seasonal cycles of sunlight, plant growth, and animal movement.
• Non-visual connections with nature are more subtle and operate on a subconscious level within the individual. These biophilic elements enable the designer to adopt a more holistic approach to their scheme, creating direct interactions with nature through the other senses. On their own non-visual elements will create a less noticeable impact. However, when augmented with other sensory connections, the result is a space that not only 'looks' beautiful, but also 'feels' safe and relaxing.
Examples of non-visual connections with nature in the space include:
o Random variations of airflow and air temperature.
o Hearing and touching moving water.
o Sounds of living ecosystems in nature like a forest, a river/stream, or the sea.
o Soundproofing from the outside urban environment.
o Scents and smells of nature through flowers, scented oils and even purified/filtered air.
FORMS OF NATURE - An indirect visual connection with nature through mimicry of natural shape texture and form. It is expressed through the use of organic and inorganic (man-made) materials that have been processed to symbolise or represent characteristics found in nature. Throughout history we have intuitively used nature as a template for beautiful design. Ornaments, furniture and even architecture from ancient civilisations show the adoption of natural forms and shapes through their craftsmanship and artistic expression. The mimicry of nature still prevails in modern design like natural forms superimposed into contemporary architecture and furniture or the adoption of natural arrangement like the golden ratio.
NATURE OF THE SPACE - Incorporating natural characteristics into the order, arrangement and structure of a room or building. The intention is to recreate characteristics of natural landscapes and habitats through the zonal arrangement of architecture and furniture. This again is a biophilic experience created predominantly through a visual connection. Some of the creative techniques employed in this principle include:
Vantages - Vantages are the design of spaces with unobscured views into the distance. This style of arrangement has evolutionary validity to it, with our ancestors evolving instincts to seek areas with unobscured views in order to spot potential danger or resource opportunities. In practice vantages are created through open-plan spaces with few dividing walls and without large visual obstructions. If room dividers are featured in a vantage dominant design, they should be no taller than waist height or made out of glass.
Refuge - Refuges are areas of withdrawal and privacy, giving people the opportunity to escape and recover from social and psychological stressors from the environment. Refuges are important areas for either focus/concentration or calm/relaxation.
Not all biophilic design features are created equal. If we look at the biophilia hypothesis above, it is clear that different design elements will have different levels of impact on the space and individuals. As some features fall into one or multiple categories of biophilic design it would be foolish to adopt a one size fits all approach or put all your eggs into one basket, expecting one feature to make all the difference. The most effective execution of biophilic design incorporates an eclectic mix of many different types of natural design elements or arrangements, providing people with the opportunity to connect with nature at a conscious and sub-conscious level. With that said some features will carry a higher biophilic value attributed to the impact they create.
One of the lessons that can be learned from the findings of this study, and the shared experience of the participants is the importance of mindfulness. The therapeutic benefits gained from interacting with the fish tank are only applicable when team members actively engage with it. As previously mentioned, not one design feature or element can always make the desired biophilic impact on its own. However, if we took a more proactive approach to our emotional wellbeing and mental health in the same way we tackle physical health we would be more likely to access the biophilic resources around us in a more meaningful way.
Our focus on aquariums as a biophilic design feature is a result of documented research in the area of fish related therapy and the common knowledge anecdote that moving fish are relaxing and calming. Aquariums carry a high biophilic value due to them having a highly visual presence in the space adding light, colour, and movement. They display natural processes through plant growth and animal behaviour. They promote empathy from the people looking after them and add the presence of water into our consciousness. The multiple layers of biophilic stimulation created from an aquarium make them an excellent tool for re-synchronising your body back into natures rhythm.
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