by Perla Sofía Curbelo Santiago
I want to introduce Perla Sofía Curbelo Santiago, a psychologist, public relations specialist, and horticultural therapist from Puerto Rico, who offers gardening activities for corporate employees, undoubtedly a very important niche, especially with the COVID19 Pandemic, where it has been evidenced the important and fundamental role nature and plants (through gardening or horticulture) play in human existence. Daniela Silva-Rodriguez Bonazzi
Today, the combination of gardening and health at corporate settings makes more sense, especially if the focus of employers is to contribute to the life experience of their work team.
Although little literature(1) documenting the health effects of “green” activities in the corporate environment exist, there are numerous examples of these types of initiatives around the world. From the integration of orchards and gardens on the rooftops of companies to the regular coordination of gardening workshops, in-person and virtual, as part of team-building events.
These “green” initiatives contribute to alleviating health problems already affecting employees long before the pandemic. Among them the burnout syndrome, which refers to “chronic stress in the workplace that has not been properly managed.”
Among the main causes identified are overwork, lack of control, and poor employment support, according to a global study sponsored by the Harvard Business Review in 2020. It should be noted that the World Health Organization (WHO) classified this syndrome as a disease in 2019, although the term was coined in the 1970s.
Nature-based activities enrich any workplace culture, from the smallest company with just one employee to those of over 200 with a gym membership that noone has been able to use since the pandemic started.
In an article published last November in the Journal of Therapeutic Horticulture, Time for a (Gardening) Break, authors suggested that as part of a bundle of interventions, exercising in nature, for example, “may appeal to non-sporty types and those not interested in indoor exercise options”, making horticultural events ideal to promote inclusivity at work.
When employers invest in their employee’s wellness, the health costs for the employee and the employers are lowered; employees are more productive, saving money for their companies; are healthier, and experience positive and important behavior changes (2).
Although these programs are important to address chronic diseases and life-changing challenges, still only 9.8% of the world’s three billion workforce have access to a workplace wellness program(3).
In 2019, the global wellness economy was $4.5 trillion, according to the Global Wellness Institute (GWI)(4). From which the workplace wellness segment, accounted for $48 billion. Still a small segment when compared with others in the industry such as the spa economy at $119 billion, but experts forecast strong future growth.
Since the Pandemic began in 2020, wellness became a priority for individuals, and companies as well. Physical and mental health is on top of the list for human resource managers looking for strategies to keep employees safe, productive at work (remotely or in-person) and to support their well-being through this global emergency.
This new reality has brought attention to people-plant relationships and an opportunity for many horticultural services, including those in the horticultural therapy field.
As a wellness promoter living in Puerto Rico, who happens to use plants and gardening strategies to educate, I have seen over the last year an increase in requests regarding virtual workshops and speaking sessions from corporate clients. These include industries such as banking, pharmaceuticals, advertising, and community foundations. Managers are looking to address the same issues and want “recreational” events that can translate well into an hour Zoom session.
Garden activities for workers
Managers are looking for activities to help reduce work-related stress, anxiety, isolation, and feelings of uncertainty their employees might be experiencing at different levels. Also, they want to give their employees a “virtual” break to socialize while learning new skills that can be used with their own life experiences.
This is where my preparation in horticultural therapy has helped me shape and educate my clients to integrate, more thoughtfully and intentionally, any horticultural event at their workplace, not just as a single event.
One of the suggestions that I keep promoting through my work is to start by integrating a plant coach into their wellness programs. Just as with other health-related professionals (doctors, nurses, trainers, yogis, mindfulness coaches) this too could result in a popular benefit at work.
During the in-person visits and /or virtual meetings, A stressor for many people, both emotionally and financially is pests and diseases affecting their plants, both in the office and at home. Having the opportunity to consult about this issue is helpful.
Also, they can utilize the meet-up to be advised on specific techniques and possible planting and landscape design projects for their home.
Of course, these professionals could come from fields such as agronomy, agribusiness, master gardeners, floristry, and horticultural therapy, among others. For example, with the assistance of a horticultural therapist, employees could discuss how to adjust gardening activities to their life circumstances and the resources available to them to continue to garden while aging or other restrictions.
This is a great opportunity for a horticultural therapy service to thrive while promoting the people-plant relationship through intentional activities and it will educate and show how to create innovative and accessible programs that help improve a worker’s life based on the organization’s resources and needs. This means that a small company can also build a thoughtful wellness program over time to embrace and care for its community while aiming for productive growth (5).
My own experience with groups, from 15 to 50 people, begin with a 20-minute presentation about a general or specific topic regarding the benefits of integrating plants and gardening activities at home or work. We then move into a demonstration or hands-on workshop (sometimes clients ask to drop off materials at the company’s headquarters for employees to pick up).
During the gardening session, participants have the opportunity to ask questions about the project. As they relax, you notice how they are more open to sharing personal anecdotes regarding their own green experiences; their faces light up from start to finish.
Those who share their memories are connected to their childhood, growing up watching one or both of their parents (or grandparents) gardening. At this point, everybody is at the same level, from managers, supervisors, to entry-level employees.
I recall, during one of the online workshops, how a senior banking manager gave us a “virtual home tour” so all the participants could see all the plants he was caring for at his home. Those 3 to 5 minutes were a window into his personal life and enough for the group to feel more connected and engaged. The experience also showed a new breed of leadership and vulnerability that I believe gardening will help grow in abundance into the corporate world.
Perla Sofía Curbelo Santiago is the founder of Agrochic.com, a platform in Spanish that promotes horticulture for wellness through editorial content, workshops, and consultancy on urban agriculture and gardening. 2021 recipient of the American Horticultural Society’s (AHS) B.Y. Morrison Communications Award. Curbelo Santiago has a certificate in Horticulture Therapy by the Chicago Botanic Garden, a B.A. in Psychology from the University of Puerto Rico, and an M.A in Public Relations from Sacred Heart University in Puerto Rico.
1 Christie, M., Hulse, L., & Miller, P.K. (2019) Time For a (Gardening) Break: Impacts of a Green Exercise Initiative for Staff Health and Wellbeing in a Corporate Environment. Journal of Therapeutic Horticulture, 30 (1), 2-24.
2 Black, A. (2017, May 17). Five Reasons Employees Wellness Is Worth the Investment. Retrieved November 3, 2019, from https://health.gov/news/blog/2017/05/five-reasons-employee-wellness-is-worth-the- investment/
3. Raphael, R. (2018, October 8). These 10 market trends turned wellness into a $4.2 trillion global industry. Retrieved November 3, 2019, from https://www.fastcompany.com/90247896/these-10-market-trends-turned-wellness-into-a-4-2-trillion-global-industry.
4. Raphael, R. (2018, October 8). These 10 market trends turned wellness into a $4.2 trillion global industry. Retrieved November 3, 2019, from https://www.fastcompany.com/90247896/these-10-market-trends-turned-wellness-into-a-4-2-trillion-global-industry.
5. Curbelo Santiago, P.S. (2019, November) Garden In, Garden Out! A wellness horticultural therapy program focused on employees transitioning from parental leave to the workplace. Program proposal submitted as a final requirement for the Horticultural Therapy Certification (HTC) Chicago Botanic Garden Horticultural Therapy Certification Program.