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Office Greenery Can Help Stave Off The Workplace Blues

If your office seems a bit stuffy and sterile, there’s an easy way to give life to your surroundings while giving your indoor health a boost.

Add some plants to your décor.

These potted powerhouses do more than look pretty. They can improve the air quality inside your office and provide other benefits as well.

I know what you’re thinking right now: Oh great, something else I have to take care of. But there are many types of houseplants that will thrive in your office without requiring much fuss.

What Good Are They?

One of the reasons plants and people make good indoor companions is that their respiratory systems work in opposite ways. People inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. Plants take in carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. This may be a simplified way of explaining the photosynthesis that we all studied in high school biology, but you get the idea.

As plants take in carbon dioxide from the air, they also take in many of the toxic substances floating around our indoor airborne environment and help clear the air in the process. When we say plants clear the air of toxins, we’re talking about some serious poisons — ammonia, benzene and formaldehyde, to name a few.

Generally, the larger the leaves on the plant, the more oxygen the plant releases into the air and the more toxins it removes. Some plants do a better job of this than others. And some of the most efficient air-cleaning plants also are low maintenance, requiring minimal effort from you to keep them green and growing indoors.

Even NASA studied the role plants play in maintaining a healthy indoor environment. In 1989, NASA and the Associated Landscape Contractors of America examined whether indoor plants can help rid enclosed spaces of airborne toxins that contribute to “sick building syndrome.” They found that houseplants remove up to 87 percent of toxic chemicals in the air every 24 hours. In addition, NASA found houseplants that required low light in order to grow were the most effective at removing chemicals from the atmosphere.

The NASA researchers concluded that microorganisms living in the plants and in their soil contributed to the plants’ clean-up abilities by feeding on the chemicals in the air, thus converting the airborne poisons into plant food. These research findings helped to determine the best way to use plants to clean the air when humans are confined to a small space over a long period of time — such as while orbiting Earth in the International Space Station.

Plants also raise the relative humidity of their indoor environments, researchers at the Agricultural University of Norway found. Plants release 97 percent of the water they take in, and the resulting moisture in the indoor atmosphere reduced the incidence of sore throats, colds and coughs, according to the research, leading to a 60 percent reduction in illness among those who worked in offices with plants.

Even those who are forced to spend their days toiling in a windowless room can benefit from having plants around. Washington State University researchers found that when plants are added to a windowless environment, workers were 12 percent more productive than they were in a plantless environment. The workers also showed less stress when they did their tasks among plants, with their systolic blood pressure readings (the top number of the two numbers that make up a blood pressure reading) lowered by one to four units. On top of that, the workers who had plants in the room said they felt more attentive to their tasks than those who worked in a room without plants.

What Plants Should I Choose?

The most important factor in selecting plants for an office environment is the amount of light available, said Jay Holcomb, Pennsylvania State University professor emeritus of floriculture. An office that is lit mainly by fluorescent light may seem bright to human eyes, but the plants don’t see it that way, he said.

Brightness is measured in footcandles, with fluorescent light coming in at about 50 footcandles, he said. “But that’s borderline bare minimum for plants,” he said. “It looks bright to us but the plants think it’s still pretty dark.”

Compare that with full sun coming through a window, which is about 5,000 to 7,000 footcandles.

If a sunny window is not part of your office environment, you can give plants a chance at more light exposure by placing them up higher, closer to the ceiling lights, Holcomb advised. “If you’re working in a cubicle, the plants sitting on top of the cubicle will do better than plants sitting on top of the desk.”

Green Office Mates

Here are some low-maintenance plants that add some green space to your office and clean the air without requiring you to spend much time on keeping them growing.

Peace lily: The peace lily’s pointy white flowers last for up to five weeks and the plant thrives even with low light and inconsistent watering. Its large leaves are good for ridding the air of benzene and ammonia. The plant is a little too large to keep on a desk, but it will do well sitting in a corner on the floor.

Chinese evergreen: This plant also has large leaves, making it an exceptional air purifier. In addition, a Chinese evergreen doesn’t need much light and can keep going with only an occasional watering when the soil is dry.

Snake plant: One of the easiest plants to grow indoors, this plant would do well near a window. It will survive even if you forget to water it now and then, so you don’t have to worry it will die while you’re away on vacation. Its tall, broad leaves also are good at removing contaminants from the air.

English ivy: Research shows this plant is good at removing airborne fecal particles from the environment. Keep the soil moist and keep the plant away from direct light and you will have a vine that keeps on growing.

Cast iron plant: I was looking for a low-maintenance plant to put in a corner of my dining room when I came across this in my local greenhouse. “Thrives on neglect” was the message written in the description that accompanied the plant, and they weren’t kidding. This plant does well even with sporadic watering and low light. And its large leaves are good air purifiers.

Philodendron and pothos: These two plants resemble each other. Both are easy-care plants that keep growing and growing. You can train the vines to climb over a stake in the pot, or you can cut them back if they get too long. Give the cuttings to someone else in your workplace; the cuttings are easy to root in a container of water, and this is a good way to spread the greenery around.

Susan Rupe is managing editor for InsuranceNewsNet. She formerly served as communications director for an insurance agents' association and was an award-winning newspaper reporter and editor. Follow her on Twitter @INNsusan. Contact her at [email protected].

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