Displaying art in workplaces can reduce stress levels and mental fatigue by up to 40 per cent, a South Australian study has shown.
The three-year study by University of South Australia researcher Bridgette Minuzzo involved 91 people across 18 work sites where there were no windows or direct views of nature. It included offices at three university campuses, a student breakout space and workstations in a busy Adelaide hospital.
The mental wellbeing of participants was measured before each trial with changes in their mental fatigue and stress levels surveyed over the next month.
Minuzzo said previous research showed that access to experiencing nature — even through a window — reduced stress but she wanted to test if artworks could have a similar effect.
She said her research differed from previous attention restoration studies that were usually set in a simulated environment such as an office in a lab with simulated work tasks and views.
“I also used original artworks because my focus was particularly on looking at how people might engage with an artistic representation of a view and how that might differ from having a window,” the PhD student said.
“There’s also a lot of spaces in cities where you might have a window but the view will be into a corridor or a neighbouring building or road.
“We can’t easily change those places but you can introduce something into that environment very easily that can help bring about a 20 to 40 per cent reduction in stress and mental fatigue.
“The participants reported that landscape paintings evoked fond memories of holidays and time spent in nature. Looking at the scenes rejuvenates tired brains and helps workers to refocus on tasks.”
Minuzzo is also an Adelaide-based visual artist with more than 20 years’ public art experience and painted the landscapes for the study herself.
She worked with a neuroscientist on the project to examine the intricacies of what happens when we are looking at nature or a realistic artistic representation of it.
Her studies found that viewing a landscape painting for as little as one to five minutes cut stress and fatigue levels.
“We all have a lunch break and a coffee break but we’ve got hours between them when we’re just sitting there and our work focus tires after 25–55 minutes,” Minuzzo said.
“If you’ve got lack of sleep, deadlines, workplace restructures and all these other stressors, sometimes you need your working brain to rest for a bit and one minute is enough for you to rejuvenate a tired working brain.”
Some of the paintings used in the study were circular, providing portal views to the natural world, while others were more expansive and immersive like a large window.
The results were similar to those achieved in studies where live views of nature were experienced.
“It’s all about a connection with nature,” Minuzzo said.
“More than 70 per cent of Australians live in cities and spend around 83 per cent of their day indoors. Many offices have clean wall policies and no windows.”
“This doesn’t allow any chance to connect with nature, denying us views to hills, sky, water or foliage, which is so essential for our wellbeing.
“We know that experiencing nature not only focuses attention but also reduces mental fatigue which — my study found — affects workers for one to three hours every day.”
Minuzzo has visited new hospital infrastructure around Australia to look at how people were incorporating nature and art into hospitals as part of her research.
She said while there were many examples of these best practices being successfully adopted in public spaces such as wards and corridors, they were not being applied in staff work spaces.
“The people who work in our hospitals are under a lot of stress and they work really long hours so for them to have something calming and restorative to look at in the form of an artwork should be the new normal in workspaces.
“Having something on the wall to look at in an office has been considered a distraction and a decorative extra in the past.
“But engaging with art is restorative, visually stimulating, can foster creative thinking and also helps our work weary brains, so the next thing is to acknowledge that art is not a decorative distraction, it’s actually good for our brains