Is it time for your workplace to turn over a new leaf?

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MY desk is home to many things – a half-eaten packet of Jaffa Cakes, diaries dating back to 2008 and a dried-up highlighter pen. What it doesn’t have is a pot plant, but if we are to take a steer from the Government, perhaps it should.

Since the coalition came to power, the Ministry of Justice has spent £14,000 on pot plants, in the 10 months to March last year, the Department of Health has paid out £12,400 and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport was left with a bill for £3,500.

The figures come courtesy of Labour MP Jon Trickett who, over the course of two weeks, asked various Government departments how much they had spent bringing a little of the natural world into their offices.

While the final totals may not be in the same league as Elton John, who once famously revealed he had spent £293,000 on flowers in a little over 18 months, it’s not exactly what you’d call frugal.

By way of explanation, Jonathan Djanogly, Conservative MP and Parliamentary undersecretary for Justice responded to the raised eyebrows by saying: “The use of pot plants in the department’s buildings is very minimal. It is likely that some courts and prison buildings have pot plants in the reception area to give a welcoming atmosphere to visitors. The Department regularly reviews its policy on the use of pot plants to maximise value for money.”

Given the Government is currently in the midst of one of the most stringent cost-cutting programmes in living memory, spending more than a few hundred pounds on making prison receptions look inviting might be considered excessive.

However, there is a growing number of health experts who claim that office plants are not just pleasing on they eye, but can bring a plethora of benefits for stressed out employees.

One study a few years ago, led by environmental psychology expert Dr Tina Bringslimark at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences found that the presence of pot plants in offices reduced fatigue, stress, dry throats, headaches, coughs and dry skin among workers.

Another similar research project went one step further claiming spending seven or so hours in close proximity to a yucca actually reduced absenteeism. The Washington University study, based on 385 office workers, showed the more plants they could see the less sick leave they took.

“One explanation is that plants and the microbes in the soil are good at removing volatile, organic compounds which affect health,” said Dr Bringslimark. “Large foliage surfaces produce most oxygen and help decompose toxic substances in the air.

“However, there could also be a psychological explanation in that people believe plants are healthier and are likely to evaluate their own health more optimistically.”

While the jury may be out as to why plants have such apparently superhuman powers, the research has been embraced by the businesses which make their money not only selling plants to companies, but popping back regularly to feed and water them.

So lucrative is the market, that various companies have now graduated from dotting the occasional plant along office corridors to building indoor gardens and living walls.

So should those of us who spend our days in barren workplaces head immediately to the nearest garden centre? Well, perhaps not just yet.

“Based on several experimental studies the presence of potted plants has been found to be helpful in many different settings, including offices, schools and hospitals,” said Dr Jonathan Kaplan in a contribution to Psychology Today. “In particular plants have been shown to lower blood pressure, improve reaction times, increase productivity and raise job satisfaction.

“However, before we get ahead of ourselves and start replacing the carpet with trays of wheat grass, it’s important to know one major limitation of the research. Most of the studies on the effects on house plants have compared the presence of plants to their absence.

“While this is the epitome of the a well-designed experiment, there might be other factors associated with the presence of plants, but not the plants themselves, that account for the more favourable results.

“The improvement could be due to distraction, novelty, caring for something, perceived control or improved air quality. Thus we might get similar results under different circumstances, such as replacing the plants with a dartboard, photos, Sea Monkeys or an air purifier.”