Updated: Feb 4, 2020
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 extrapol