Are your office plants making you healthier?

We spend an incredible amount of time indoors. A recent study of UK office and laboratory workers revealed that before and after commuting we spend on average less than an hour outside, and that only 7% of us regularly spend our lunch outdoors. Whilst I won’t go into the importance of getting your daily dose of Vitamin D, instead I’ll focus on creating a healthy indoor environment – enter the humble house (or in this case office) plant.

If you are as obsessed with house plants as I am you will have read the claims that plants will improve the air quality, removing toxins and pollutants. The science behind this comes from none other than NASA who back in the 80s conducted their Clean Air Study to find a solution to the phenomenon of ‘sick building syndrome’, causing workers everywhere to experience symptoms of headaches, rashes, drowsiness and congestion which would be alleviated after leaving the office. It’s theorised that part of this is due to increased levels of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) that off-gassed from IT equipment, furnishing and cleaning products, and keeping individuals in an unventilated environment strengthens this.

As an organisation that likes to keep humans in closed spaces, NASA investigated the use of plants and their soil microsystems as a method to reduce air pollutants. Their findings were encouraging – a number of low-light requiring plants including peace lily, English ivy, green spider plant and bamboo were able to remove some trichloroethylene (TCE), benzene and formaldehyde.

The results of this experiment have influenced office gardeners all over the world, but as with any research the results have been contended. First of all, the experiment was conducted using sealed experimental chambers and real life is obviously less controlled. The efficiency of plants removing VOC has been shown to depend on a variety of factors including temperature, light intensity, VOC concentration and ventilation rates. More recently a study has gone as far as to say that indoor plants do not improve air quality, or more specifically that you would need 10 to 1,000 plants per m2 to achieve the same VOC removal rate as a standard outdoor-to-indoor air exchange system.

Whilst I’m quite excited at the prospect of turning the office into a jungle, I’m not convinced I can get the whole company on board for that level of foliage. Fortunately for me, plants also boast some benefits to our mental health and wellbeing in the office.



We’ve all been to zoos and seen how the level of enrichment (or lack of it) in the enclosure can have a significant impact on an animal’s behaviour and state. In spite of this we see offices using a ‘lean’ approach to the working environments; by removing interference such as pictures, plants, food and anything else non-essential to the job then in theory productivity will increase.

In reality the research suggests the opposite – by enriching our environment with plants we in fact see an increase in both productivity and employee welfare especially when workers are empowered to have an input on decoration. These results are hardly surprising considering our innate tendency to seek out nature, referred to as ‘biophilia’ by biologist E. O Wilson.

SustainIt Office Jungle – in photos

From a sustainability perspective there are some important things to consider when buying office plants:

  • Sourcing – Ordering plants online, whilst being convenient, can have an array of impacts. Where and how has the plant been grown? How far is it being shipped and how quickly? What packaging will it be delivered in? If possible, try to source your plants from a local plant shop or garden centre to minimise the impact.
  • Soil – Several house plants benefit from peat moss to help with soil drainage, but digging peat from our peat bogs has a detrimental effect, damaging ecosystems and releasing CO2 into the atmosphere. There are plenty of peat-free alternatives out there – the Incredible Edible Network is supporting the Peat Free April campaign with the aim to help gardeners consider other options and send a message to the government to go peat free.
  • Pots – If shopping instore, check what they are doing with their old plastic pots when they pot on their stock. Do they have a stack that they offer to customers for free or at a discount? Also consider your plant pot covers. As part of our SDG themed secret santa last year, one of our gifts was a macrame plant hanger – the pot had been purchased from a local business, and was made of concrete made from recycled plastic.

Top tips for office plants:

  • Know your plants! Plants can be as fickle and fussy as humans. Do your research to check that you position your plant in the best place for light exposure and temperature control.
  • Set a watering schedule and a designated office plant-waterer. The symptoms of over and under watering often look remarkably similar, so it helps if one person is on H2O duty.
  • Watch out for the office dog (or cat). Some plants are toxic to dogs and cats, so always check the label before buying.
  • Don’t put your coffee grounds on your plant. Whilst some plants seem to enjoy a caffeine hit, it could inhibit your plant’s growth and if they’re still moist it can encourage fungus growth.

By Sam Hadfield, Systems Consultant at SustainIt Solutions