Workplaces are stressful. It’s the nature of the beast. Good employers take steps to reduce the stress, like nice break rooms and comfy chairs, but eventually there’ll be a moment when you’re sitting there panicking because something is due in an hour that usually takes you the better part of a month.
But, according to the news, there’s a silver lining. Headlines across the world have been cheerfully extolling the wonderful benefits of potted plants on your desk. A study has apparently found that employees who spend just a few minutes a day tending a desk plant are less stressed, less anxious, and generally better off.
It sounds great, especially for employers. Imagine if you could cure anxiety at work for only $3 per person!
Unfortunately, the truth is a bit more depressing than the hype. Potted plants probably won’t stop you from being anxious at work.
The study that everyone is talking about was an interventional trial funded by Mitsubishi in Japan. The researchers took a small group of people (n=63), gave them small plants to put on their desk, and got them to rate their anxiety and take their pulse before and after tending the plant at work. They also had a control period, where the people would simply stare at their desk instead of tending a plant. When they compared the two situations — doing nothing vs. caring for a plant — they found that there was a slight reduction in anxiety and pulse rate when people were watering their desk buddies.
And when I say slight, I mean it. On average, people became less anxious by a single point on an 80-point scale, which was statistically significant but probably not medically important. It was a very modest, boring result that would cause anyone with any scientific training to shrug. It’s the sort of boring, everyday finding that makes up the back-catalog of scientific research.
But somehow, instead of being cheerfully forgotten, it made headline news across the globe.
Usually at this point in an article, I’d do an in-depth analysis looking at the reasons that you probably can’t trust the reporting of a study. Maybe the tiny absolute risk increase was misrepresented, perhaps the findings were more likely correlation than causation, or maybe the researchers only demonstrated their results in mice.
I’m not going to do that here.
The problem is, the study was riddled with problems. Looking at one or two issues doesn’t give you the whole picture, so instead I’m going to summarize the problems that make this study pretty much entirely a waste of time:
- People took their own pulse rate. People are terrible at taking their own pulse rate.
- The number of people in the study was far too small to have much confidence in the results.
- The control was totally inadequate. If you’re comparing “doing nothing” with “doing something” on stress and find a result it’s completely unsurprising because DOING NOTHING IS STRESSFUL.
- There was no randomization. It’s not unlikely that these results are just down to regression to the mean (i.e. dumb luck).
- The statistics were weird. The results may have been statistically significant, but they were still very strange.
Essentially, the researchers did an observational study that looked at whether doing nothing at all was different to doing something, and found a tiny result. No way to know if that result was down to the plants, or some other factor. We can’t even say that it’s likely that the plants did anything, because people were unblinded and self-assessed their own health status, a major problem for this kind of research.
So, the headlines were wrong. It’s very unlikely that putting a potted plant on your desk is going to do anything for your stress, especially if you’re like me and have a habit of killing anything green that you’re put in charge of.
Realistically, this is not much of a surprise. Stress is a complex, multifaceted beast, and it’s very unlikely that something as minor as a small patch of green on your desk is going to make it go away. It’s a bit ridiculous to think that a stressful work environment could be solved with a $3 investment, when most work-related stress is due to other people anyway.
If you take anything away from this study, it’s that even science that is almost entirely meaningless can make headlines if it plays to our biases. We all want solving stress to be as easy as a plant, even though we know that there’s no way it could be*.
Remember: most complex problems have a simple solution that is quick, easy, and wrong.
If you’re worried about your work environment, it’s probably best to talk to a health professional or maybe a workplace councilor. If you’re an employer thinking about stress in the office, there are almost certainly better things to do than buying greenery — I’d start by giving your staff more time off.
Just don’t go out and get some potted plants.
It’s unlikely that they are going to solve work-related anxiety.
You can now listen to Gid on the Sensationalist Science podcast for your weekly dose of scientific shenanigans and media muddling:
*And if you’re a bit cynical, you might wonder why a multinational corporation would want to fund a misleading study showing that a cheap intervention could cure workplace anxiety, instead of, say, increased holidays for all staff.