Alumnus tries to get workers to act naturally on the job

October 2, 2013
By Chris Saunders

We’ve all experienced it at the office. There’s a pile of work in front of us, and we’re lost in thought, looking out the window at the sun shining on the green grass. And instead of thinking about what we can get accomplished, we want to steal away for a hike or a visit to the lake to enjoy the beautiful day.

Well, one researcher believes getting lost in such meditative moments can actually enhance worker productivity. Mark Ellison has dedicated his research on his blog, Hiking Research, to showing how nature impacts people at work for the better.

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Mark Ellison in Olympic National Park, Washington.

“Research studies have shown that time in nature increases creativity,” says Ellison, director of admissions at the Cabarrus College of Health Sciences in Concord, N.C. “Research shows that people who spend time in nature are willing to work in teams and collaborate.”

So Ellison also teaches classes at the college to show employers and employees how they can connect with nature on the clock, so to speak. He teaches them how to set priorities so they can find time to hike. He teaches them reflective writing techniques. He provides them opportunities to plant herbs and plants at work and encourages them to hold meetings on hikes or walks around the grounds rather than in a stuffy office.

“My primary focus is to help people understand nature and what it can do to improve their health,” he says, “and to use nature as the vehicle to help them start some practices.”

That research began when Ellison was pursuing graduate studies in adult and community college education at NC State in 2006. He started researching how people who hiked the Appalachian Trail were positively affected in their lives. And that theme became his study for the next five years for his dissertation, leading him to his doctoral degree in education in 2010.

Ellison says that most audiences are receptive to his research and instruction. But, he says, a lot of people come to him with obstacles already in place in their minds, not in their offices, that make them hesitate before going out for a five-mile hike.

“Some people didn’t grow up in nature,” he says. “And you get people who are afraid. We have to get them comfortable in nature. And we’re so connected all the time that we can’t disconnect. If you don’t disconnect, you’re not going to have down time.

“I encourage people to turn stuff off.”

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