Evidence suggests that both people's physical and emotional health are benefited from thriving, wildlife-rich environments. People who live close to nature are more physically active, psychologically strong, and in better overall health. Thanks to impartial economic research, The Wildlife Trusts have now strengthened this evidence. The Institute of Occupational Medicine Health and Ricardo, a global strategic environmental and engineering consultant, conducted an economic analysis of Wildlife Trusts projects in May 2023 to see whether there were any advantages to the NHS and to estimate potential cost savings. Participants in Wildlife Trusts programmes were evaluated for their physical, mental, and emotional well-being to see if anything had changed as a result.[i] The research demonstrated that the health and wellbeing programmes offered by the Wildlife Trusts save the NHS money and reduce reliance on its resources.
Research demonstrated far larger cost savings if these programmes were implemented widely throughout the UK. For instance, in Sheffield and Rotherham, the Wild at Heart programme fosters relationships between senior citizens and the outdoors. Participants report feeling less social isolation and loneliness, and their physical and mental health improves. This results in fewer outpatient appointments, A&E visits, and inpatient admissions to the NHS. Consequently, this saves the NHS £38,646 over the course of a year on expenses related to the 82 participants' mental health conditions.[ii]
It's not just the elderly that can benefitfrom increased interactions with nature. A US study looked into how birdsong affects hikers of all ages’ well-being. Along two sections of pathways in Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks in Colorado, researchers concealed speakers that played recorded birdcalls. The researchers would silence the speakers every other week. Hikers exposed to the recorded birdsong during interviews said they were happier than those who weren't. Additionally, the poll found that people's perceptions of increasing biodiversity can enhance their sense of well-being.[iii] Furthermore, in 2017, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and the National Health Service (NHS) of the UK collaborated to test nature prescriptions on the Shetland Islands. Since the beginning of the project, and proven throughout, doctors have suggested birdwatching, rambling, and beach walks to treat ailments including stress, diabetes, heart disease, and mental illness.[iv]
The Wildlife Trusts’ head of health and education, Dom Higgins, said:
“This new research proves the immense value of nature-based projects for improving individual health and helping to ease the burden on the NHS. Nature is an essential part of health and social care, but we are not maximising that potential. Green prescribing works and the more we can develop these interventions.
Nearly one-fifth (19%) of American workers describe their mental health as fair or poor, and these individuals report around four times as many unexpected absences as their counterparts who report good, very good, or outstanding mental health. Workers with fair or poor mental health are projected to miss approximately 12 days of work each year, compared to 2.5 days for all other workers, throughout the course of 12 months. This missing work is predicted to cost the economy $47.6 billion in lost productivity annually when applied to the whole U.S. workforce.[v] Of course, those with poor mental health should not be victimised for this cost; as we know, depression can be as debilitating as a broken leg.
With this in mind, it’s valuable to examine how mental health can be improved. Quantitative data is fairly sparse on this subject, but the Journal of Global Health conducted an empirical analysis of the impact of interactions with nature on mental health. Their research found that in 98% of cases, outcomes for those with mental health conditions improved. It is too much of a leap to suggest that exposure to nature would result in a similar statistical decrease in absenteeism. However, the eyewatering $47.6 billion lost to poor mental health in the US suggests that any material decrease could result in a significant financial bonus. Such a financial bonus could justify investment in nature restoration, allowing employees to engage with said restoration.
For example, planting trees halfway across the world would have the same impact on an organisation’s overall carbon footprint as planting trees one mile away from a premises. Still, the impact on the workforce could be enough to not only offset the carbon cost but also the cost of absenteeism.
Oscar is a recent graduate with a background in earth science. He is currently studying an MSc focussing on disaster responses, emergency planning and community resilience. His postgraduate research project will assess the link between climate crisis risk perception and attitudes to green energy projects. “Adapting to the climate crisis through the pursuit of net zero requires community engagement and understanding. Zero Carbon Academy’s goals closely align with this approach and I’m excited to have the opportunity to research and communicate a variety of topics relating to our environment and sustainability”.