My fellow Americans, we are stressed, stressed, stressed.

We especially feel stress at work -- and doubly so if we have to work in an open office.

Now, a new study out of Japan has a solution. At least, a partial solution.

Researchers at the University of Hyogo in Awaji, Japan had a theory: they thought that simply putting a small plant on office workers' desks might improve their well-being and reduce their stress levels.

No need to hide the ball on this. Their study worked, they say. 

But you have to take a look at the work environment that the employees worked in to realize just how significant the findings were.

Seriously, it sounds like these people worked in corporate hell:

  • None of the 63 employees in the study was in a management position. 
  • They all worked in big, open office spaces -- in a company described only as a "privately owned electric company." 
  • They had regimented schedules, and were required to be in the office each day: 9 to 12 p.m., then an hour for lunch, and then from 1 to 6 p.m.
  • Nobody had any real natural light. In fact, even those who worked near windows were made to keep the blinds drawn, in order "to block the sunlight" for some bizarre reason.

"Therefore, the participants whose desks were near a window did not have a window view," the study said. 

Even the way the participants were recruited for the study -- "via interoffice e-mail," with "[n]o incentives ... offered" seems a little dystopian. 

The fact that only 75 employees out of 1,500 volunteered for the program -- where the pitch was basically, get a free plant -- might tell you something else about morale. 

(Of the 75, 12 were disqualified for various reasons.)

Then, there's the study itself. There were two parts:

  1. First, a one week control period, during which the workers were just told to go about their business as usual, to establish their stress baselines on a scale called the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI), and 
  2. Second, four weeks in which the workers were given small desk plants, and told to take 3-minute breaks at their desks, in view of the plants, when they felt stress.

That was it -- well, we should probably also mention that they had to take a short course on how to care for the plants, and to do things like take their own pulses.

The whole thing sounds like such a terrible environment to me -- exactly what I was afraid I was getting into when I worked for one single day in the bureaucracy of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (and then quit).

And yet: It worked. As the researchers wrote:

The STAI scores decreased significantly from pre- to post-intervention. The results did not differ significantly when we looked at the data within the age groups nor the different plant groups. 

These results suggest that placing small plants chosen by the participants within close sight of them contributed to their psychological stress reduction regardless of their age or plants choice.

Honestly, the degree to which this helped might be surprising, but the fact that it did at all, isn't.

Previously, I've written about another study that found that simply commuting to work through "outdoor spaces that contain 'green' and/or 'blue' natural elements such as street trees, forests, city parks and natural parks" led employees to have better mental health.

So, bottom line. If you want a friend, President Truman once said, get a dog.

But if you want to reduce stress at work: Get a plant.